As the majority of the thirteen books longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize are novellas rather than novels, I finished reading all of them just after the shortlist was announced a couple of weeks ago. Here are my reviews of seven of the shorter books on the longlist:
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler translated from the German by Charlotte Collins has been shortlisted for the Prize and deservedly so. Even though it didn’t make it on to the shadow panel list, this book is one of my personal favourites and I would be very happy if it won the overall prize. It tells the story of Andreas Egger, a solitary man who lives in a remote mountain village in Austria during the twentieth century. The tone is very similar to that of Stoner by John Williams in that while Andreas lives a seemingly simple and quiet life, there are many events which have significant emotional repercussions for him. Seethaler succeeds in capturing “a whole life” in a spare but satisfying novella of just 150 pages.
Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It tells the story of Ludo, an exiled Portuguese woman living in Luanda who bricks herself up in her apartment on the eve of Angolan independence after her sister and brother-in-law disappear. Surviving mostly on pigeons, she later meets Sabalu, a young boy who manages to climb up on to her terrace. Agualusa won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2001 but it came as a surprise to the majority of the shadow panel to see his latest novel progress to the official shortlist. It’s an original premise and engagingly written although I personally would have preferred to see ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal in its place on the shortlist instead.
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump, Ladivine by Marie NDiaye is in the shadow panel top six but not the official shortlist. It follows the lives of Malinka, who later changes her name to Clarisse, and her daughter Ladivine, named after Malinka/Clarisse’s mother. ‘Ladivine’ is the book which has taken me the longest to digest partly because the writing is very hypnotic and the story becomes increasingly surreal towards the end. Despite being quite meandering in comparison with some of the more tautly written books on the longlist, I think the way NDiaye explores the hidden identities of the three generations of women is very intriguing and subtly effective. Many thanks to Maclehose Press at Quercus for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila and translated from the French by Roland Glasser narrowly missed out on a place in our shadow panel shortlist and didn’t make the cut for the official shortlist either. Set in the ‘Tram 83’ nightclub in Congo, it follows the lives of Lucien, a poet, and his friend Requiem told with the fast-paced energy of the free form jazz which soundtracks the story. The setting is very evocative although the characters themselves were more challenging to engage with and certain elements of the prose quickly became very repetitive. One of the shadow panel members, Lori, has commented that ‘Tram 83’ might be better suited to a short story format and I would be inclined to agree with that.
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar is probably my least favourite longlisted book by some margin – a view shared by many of the other shadow panel members. Thankfully it’s extremely short at just 47 pages in length with a fair amount of blank space on several pages which means it’s basically a short story rather than a novella (and barely qualifies for the Prize at all in my view). Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler, it was published in Brazil in 1978 and is now available in English for the first time. It centres around an unnamed couple – a farmer and his lover – who spend the night together followed by an intense argument. Whereas the stream of consciousness technique has been used very effectively in novels such as Zone by Mathias Énard, I thought ‘A Cup of Rage’ was a lot more tedious despite being around ten times shorter in length. Much like my experience of reading ‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburo Oe, I expect this is a matter of personal taste but I wasn’t surprised at all that ‘A Cup of Rage’ didn’t make the shortlist.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen and translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah is published by Peirene Press, an independent publisher who specialise in translated novellas, as part of their Chance Encounter series. Set during the famine of 1867 when Finland was ruled by the Russian Empire, it tells the story of Marja, a farmer’s wife who heads south with her children towards St Petersburg in search of food and a better life. The sparse prose fits well with the bleak storyline and other reviewers have commented on the significant parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. I’ve read and enjoyed a few Peirene Press titles over the last couple of years, however, this one didn’t particularly stand out for me.
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is the first book I’ve read which has been translated from the Bahasa Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring. It tells the story of the murder of Anwar Sadat but without any mystery as the identity of the murderer, his neighbour Margio, is revealed in the very first sentence. However, his reasons for committing his crime aren’t explained until the very last page and Kurniawan maintains this suspense very skilfully throughout. I enjoyed the story and the varied cast of characters but other shadow panel members have said that Kurniawan’s previous novel ‘Beauty Is a Wound’ is more ambitious than ‘Man Tiger’ so I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.
You can follow the links to read my reviews of the other six longlisted books by Elena Ferrante, Orhan Pamuk, Maylis de Kerangal, Han Kang, Kenzaburo Oe and Yan Lianke. Our shadow panel winner will be selected shortly before the official winner is announced on Monday 16th May.