Libraries, Women’s Fiction, Works in Translation – The Awards
It’s book award season and yes, there are plenty of them; I do enjoy seeing what libraries around the world are nominating in The Dublin Literary Award, then there are the more commercial choices in the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced this week, the literary International Booker Prize (works translated into English), then later in the year, that blend of the two, the cross genre Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
Today the International Booker Prize announced 13 books on its long list, works of fiction translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, originating from 11 languages and 12 countries – including Hindi for the first time.
The 13 nominated books are:
Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India), tr. Daisy Rockwell (Hindi)
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.
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), tr. Jennifer Croft (Polish)
A 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.
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) tr. Frances Riddle (Spanish)
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.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (Seoul), tr. Anton Hur (Korean) (short stories)
A genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Using elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.
The translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Tokyo) tr. Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Japanese)
Told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.
Instead of putting up resistance, a 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 their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.
This deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to a 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.
Paradais by Fernanda Melchor (Puebla, Mexico) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish)
Written in a chilling torrent of prose by one of Mexico’s most thrilling new writers, Paradais explores the explosive fragility of Mexican society.
Inside a luxury housing complex, two misfit teenagers sneak around and get drunk. Franco, lonely, overweight, and addicted to porn, fantasizes about seducing his neighbour – an attractive married woman and mother.
Meanwhile Polo, the community’s gardener, dreams about quitting his gruelling job, fleeing his overbearing mother and their narco-controlled village. As each face the impossibility of getting what they think they deserve, Franco and Polo hatch a mindless and macabre scheme.
Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (Seoul) tr. Anton Hur (Korean)
An energetic, joyful, and moving novel that depicts both the glittering night-time world of Seoul, and the bleary-eyed morning after.
Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars, where they suppress their anxieties about their love lives, families and money with rounds of soju and freezer-chilled Marlboro Reds.
In time, even Jaehee settles down, leaving Young alone to care for his ailing mother and find companionship in his relationships with a series of men – including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.
Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Jakarta, Indonesia) tr. Tiffany Tsao (Indonesian)
A powerful blend of science fiction, absurdism and alternative-historical realism that aims to destabilise the heteronormative world and expose its underlying rot.
Inspired by Simone Weil’s concept of ‘decreation’ and drawing on Batak and Christian cultural elements, the author puts queer characters in situations and plots conventionally filled by hetero characters.
In one story, a staff member is introduced to their new workplace – a department of Heaven devoted to archiving unanswered prayers. In another, a woman’s attempt to holiday in Vietnam after her gay son commits suicide turns into a nightmarish failed escape. And in a speculative-historical third, a young man is haunted by the tale of a giant living in colonial-era Sumatra.
The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman (Parisian living in New York) tr. Leslie Camhi (French)
A remarkable debut novel of an exquisitely wrought story about a daughter’s inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother.
Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, aka ‘Maman’, smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn’t have it any other way. But when Maman is hospitalised after a third divorce and breakdown, everything changes.
As the story of Catherine’s traumatic childhood and coming of age unfolds, the pieces come together to form an indelible portrait of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.
More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman (Israel) tr.Jessica Cohen (Hebrew)
Sweeping story about loving with courage that confronts our deepest held beliefs about a woman’s duty to herself – and to her children.
On a kibbutz in 2008, Gili is celebrating the 90th birthday of her grandmother Vera, the adored matriarch of a sprawling and tight-knit family. Festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Nina, who abandoned Gili as a baby. Nina’s return precipitates a journey from Israel to the island of Goli Otok, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
It was here, five decades earlier, that Vera was tortured as a political prisoner. And it is here that three women will come to terms with the terrible moral dilemma Vera faced, that permanently altered the course of their lives.
Phenotypes by Paulo Scott (Sao Paulo, Brazil) tr. Daniel Hahn (Portuguese)
A smart and stylish account of the bigotry lurking in hearts and institutions alike.
In this complex tale, two very different brothers of mixed black and white heritage are divided by the colour of their skin, as racial tension rises in society and a guilty secret resurfaces from their shared past.
Scott probes the old wounds of race in Brazil, and in particular the loss of a black identity independent from the history of slavery. Exploratory rather than didactic, a story of crime, street-life and regret as much as a satirical novel of ideas, Phenotypes is a seething masterpiece of rage and reconciliation.
A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) tr. Damion Searls (Norwegian)
A transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.
Asle is an ageing painter, living 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, 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).
After the Sun by Jonas Eika (Denmark) tr. Sherilyn Hellberg (Danish)
With irrepressible urgency, Eika’s astonishing fiction juxtaposes startling beauty with grotesquery, balancing the hyper-realistic with the fantastical.
After the Sun opens portals to our newest realities, haunting the margins of a globalised world that’s both saturated with yearning and brutally transactional.
Under Cancún’s hard blue sky, a beach boy provides a canvas for tourists’ desires, seeing deep into the world’s underbelly. An enigmatic encounter in Copenhagen takes an IT consultant down a rabbit hole of speculation that proves more seductive than sex. Meanwhile, the collapse of a love triangle in London leads to a dangerous, hypnotic addiction. And in the Nevada desert, a grieving man tries to merge with an unearthly machine.
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I haven’t read any of these, though I did just read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, so I’m intrigued by her new translation, but at close to 1000 pages, unlikely to be any time soon. I have been keen to read Elena Knows, A Charco Press (best of contemporary Latin American literature) publication for a while. Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs was a popular read, so I expect Heaven will be equally widely read.
It’s an interesting mix of names that regularly come up among those who read translations, and a new wave of more modern tales, addressing current contemporary issues.
It is always interesting to see the reactions, the reviews, and who will make the shortlist of six to be announced on 7 April. The winners (author + translator) will be announced on 26 May 2022.
Do any of these titles jump out at you with interest?
For me, it was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Hope, not a book I was aware of, but both an interesting subject and a rare translation from Hindi! Tilted Press are such trailblazers!