Man Booker International Reviews: Part 4 (and the official shortlist)

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist 2017

The official Man Booker International Prize shortlist of six books was announced on Thursday:

I think this is an interesting selection with some very strong contrasts in genre and style. The shadow panel shortlist will be revealed at a later date as we have decided to allow ourselves a bit more time to finish reading the longlist and deliberate our views. You will have to wait until 9am UK time on Thursday 4th May to find out how many of our collective choices match those of the official judges…

Compass Mathias EnardI had just finished reading Compass by Mathias Enard when the shortlist was announced. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, it has already won the Prix Goncourt and tells the story of Franz Ritter, an Austrian musicologist who is lying awake, seriously ill with an unspecified illness in his Viennese apartment. Over the course of one night, his memories merge almost seamlessly with his dreams as he muses on his travels to Turkey, Syria and Iran and reflects on his unrequited love for Sarah, a French academic who appears to be almost comically unattainable.

Enard’s most ambitious novel Zone, previously called in by the IFFP shadow panel in 2015, was notable for its internal monologue consisting of one long sentence. There are similar stream-of-consciousness elements in ‘Compass’ too but I found them a bit more palatable here thanks to the welcome inclusion of paragraphs and dialogue.

Compared to the other novels on the longlist which tend to concentrate on one specific setting, ‘Compass’ is ambitiously vast in its scope bridging Western and Eastern cultures, detailing the influence of Orientalism on various European artists, musicians and writers and addressing both historical and contemporary events in the countries Franz has travelled through. However, many of the references to Middle Eastern composers and other historical figures from the regions were lost on me and I think the scholarly tone risks coming across as overly pretentious, reading more like a draft PhD thesis at times than a novel. Fortunately, Franz’s thoughts frequently return to Sarah and it is this element of the story which holds the narrative together in some vague form of structure.

It goes without saying that ‘Compass’ is certainly one of the more challenging books on the shortlist. I can’t claim this is a book I would like to revisit in a hurry as it is too intellectually dry for my taste, but I can also see why it is being advocated by some as a potential winner.

Swallowing Mercury Wioletta Greg In comparison to ‘Compass’, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg is one of the shortest titles on the longlist at just 146 pages in length. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak, it is a coming-of-age tale which explores Wiola’s childhood in the 1970s and 1980s dominated by her family’s strict Catholicism and life in the small fictional village of Hektary during the Cold War.

Like ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors, ‘Swallowing Mercury’ is one of the quirkier titles on the longlist, and a strong contrast with the big, serious intellectual tomes like ‘Compass’. Whereas I found the odd colloquialisms in Nors’s book quite jarring, I thought ‘Swallowing Mercury’ had a certain charm to it as well as a smoother translation overall. Despite initially appearing to be quite whimsical, the story has its darker elements too and the context of Poland undergoing huge political and social change at the time provides a fitting backdrop for a coming-of-age story.

Despite the relatively loose connections between the vignettes and some abrupt endings, the portrayal of small yet significant events described in the blurb as “the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days” is very poignant. For that reason, I thought Greg’s debut novella had quite a good chance of appearing on the shortlist but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, for me, ‘Swallowing Mercury’ was an enjoyable introduction to Polish fiction in translation which I hope to read more of in the future.


Filed under Books

8 responses to “Man Booker International Reviews: Part 4 (and the official shortlist)

  1. Daniel Casey

    Reblogged this on Misanthropester.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you know, I thought Swallowing Mercury rather than Mirror Shoulder Signal would make the shortlist, though the latter is better constructed as a novel. Like you, I felt Swallowing Mercury lacked cohesion despite some good chapters.
    Compass is very academic at times but I think that’s deliberate as it seems to be in part about our habit of forgetting the past and not valuing knowledge.


  3. I hadn’t heard of Swallowing Mercury. It sounds terrific — adding it to the TBR now. I was sent a copy of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, an upcoming release from Fitzcarraldo Editions. My first taste of Polish fiction as far as I can recall. It’s a very odd book that mixes styles and stories.


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