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Man Booker International Prize authors open London Literature Festival

Man Booker International Prize authors open London Literature Festival

Seven of the 10 authors contesting the Man Booker International Prize were in town ahead of the prize announcement on Wednesday. They joined forces at the opening event of the London Literature Festival to give a series of readings at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday evening. As Jim Naughtie, master of ceremonies for the evening, commented, these writers make one “excited once again by what fiction can do”; they represent the “imagination in different cultures and different places and are lifted up in equal measure”. Something there then for the writers themselves to live up to. And they did.

The dapper, bearded U.R. Ananthamurthy pointed out that Kannada, the language in which he writes, is no minority tongue but is spoken by 50 million people. “Kannada has crossed the seas through my work”, he noted matter-of-factly as he read a mellifluous excerpt in the language. Lydia Davis amused and startled the audience by announcing: “I am going to read seven short stories.” There was no need to check one's watch though, because several were of haiku-like brevity. Intizar Husain meanwhile read in Urdu which had the feel of an incantation. His piece, when recited in translation, contained the memorable but gentle insult: “Has your brain been put out to pasture?”

By way of contrast Yan Lianke's reading in Mandarin of a story about snow in summer gave the audience sharply different cadences. He wore a bright red shirt,  ironic comment perhaps on the Chinese government that has had some of his books banned? Marie NDiaye, read in French with a voice on the edge of huskiness. Her paragraphs, alternating with an actress reading an English translation, bounced across the stage like a game of literary ping pong.

Josip Novakovich, witty, warm and glamorous in black tie, had the audience on side within a sentence. He kept it there with a humorous and inventive reading about a kiss. Peter Stamm in chinos and rolled shirt sleeves was wry about reading in German rather than his native Schweizerdeutsch (he read the English translation himself) but made the polyglot switch effortlessly. Aharon Appelfeld, Marilynne Robinson and Vladimir Sorokin couldn't make it to London in time and extracts from their work were read beautifully by actors.

Six different languages then caught the audience up in their rhythms – a hypnotic Babel that gave tantalising glimpses of unfamiliar and beguiling literary worlds. The fact that the majority of the audience didn't speak Kannada, Urdu or Mandarin was somehow immaterial, the authors' renditions all had the smack of literature, of sibilance and words chosen with care. It kept everyone rapt.

Man Booker International Prize authors open London Literature Festival