In my recent absence, six translated novels have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize including book from six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish.
Wildly original works of literature that will captivate readers, this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level.
Summaries of the novels are below, with the judges comments. The winners of the prize will be named on 26 May 2022.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) Translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd
Told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, Heaven is a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.
Instead of putting up resistance, the boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware that their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.
Mieko Kawakami’s deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to her remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.
An intense, claustrophobic novel, Heaven uses its tale of middle school bullying to enact
Nietzsche’s critique of morality.
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) Translated by Frances Riddle
A unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.
After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.
Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.
“Claudia Piñeiro’s short and deeply felt novel, evokes the loneliness of ageing and the uncertainty of memory. Frances Riddle’s brutal yet sparing translation suggests the shadows and light of noir without ever eclipsing the very human tragedy at the core of the book.”
A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) Translated by Damion Searls
Jon Fosse delivers both a transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.
Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions.
Written in melodious and hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).
Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India) Translated by Daisy Rockwell
An urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.
In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.
Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.
A loud and irresistible novel.
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Translated by Jennifer Croft
Olga Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.
In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (South Korea) Translated by Anton Hur
Bora Chung presents a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Korean author Bora Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society. Anton Hur’s translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.
While the stories in Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung blend elements of horror, fantasy and the surreal, each is viscerally rooted in the real fears and pressures of everyday life.