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Thoughts on the Man Booker International shortlist

Thoughts on the Man Booker International shortlist

  •  Virginie Despentes (France) Vernon Subutex 1, translated by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press)
  • Han Kang (South Korea) The White Book, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books)
  • László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) The World Goes On, translated by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain) Like a Fading Shadow, translated by Camilo A. Ramirez (Tuskar Rock Press)
  • Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq) Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright (Oneworld)
  • Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Bleary-eyed but happy, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize judges have now announced their shortlist. Lisa Appignanesi, Michael Hofmann, Hari Kunzru, Tim Martin and Helen Oyeyemi can breathe out, take a brief pause and look at the world around them, notice the first green shoots of spring and then pick up the six chosen books again to try and winnow a winner from them.

What they have come up with is a list of global span – from Korea to Europe via Iraq – and a mixture of names from the well-known to the novel. The most familiar are the former winners Han Kang who, with her translator Deborah Smith, won the prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian, and László Krasznahorkai, who won the prize in 2015 (when it was for a body of work rather than an individual book) and his translating team of John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes. Also widely recognised now is Ahmed Saadawi whose Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright, won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.   

Antonio Muñoz Molina meanwhile has a long publishing history in Spain, some 24 books dating back to 1984. Several have been translated from the Spanish into English, including La noche de los tiempos (In the Night of Time) of 2009 which received excellent reviews and suggested that Molina was a novelist the Anglophone world should pay attention to.

Virginie Despentes has the liveliest biography among the shortlisted novelists, having been, in her time, a filmmaker, maid, sex worker and rock journalist. She hit the headlines when her first novel, Baise-Moi, a rape-revenge story, was adapted for film in 2000 and promptly became the first movie to be banned in France for 28 years. Despite the furore, she has nevertheless authored some 15 other works.

Olga Tokarczuk is also an established poet, essayist and psychologist whose fiction and other work promotes a pluralist and inclusive vision of Poland that has led her into conflict with some of the country’s more right-wing elements. Her nominated book, Flights, is though less about Poland than the nomadic condition that underlies much of humanity.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these very different authors treat a bewildering range of themes: there is a monster on the loose in Baghdad, the journey across Europe of Chopin’s disembodied heart, a man who carries his despair around the world with him like luggage, a meditation on the allure of white things, happenings in the Parisian rock scene, and an account of an American political assassin on the run in Portugal.

The translators are as distinguished in their field as the authors are in theirs. Krasznahorkai’s tag-team of John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet and George Szirtes have been tackling his novels for some time; Deborah Smith and Han Kang have become more like sisters than writer and translator; Frank Wynne was also longlisted for a Spanish translation (Javier Cercas’s The Impostor); Jennifer Croft, another polyglot, is a literary magazine editor fluent in Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian; Camilo A. Ramirez and Jonathan Wright meanwhile combine translating with other professional interests. Since the authors’ nationalities are noted it seems only fair to point out that the translators are a global bunch too, coming from Ireland, England, Hungary, Canada, Colombia, and the United States.

Just to reinforce the diversity contained within the shortlist, the stories resulting from the strange author-translator alchemy encompass six different languages and have been brought to public notice by five different publishing houses, all independents or small imprints – showing perhaps a nimbleness and daring some of the larger houses could do to emulate. Tuskar Rock Press, with two nominations, has reason for an extra vigorous pat on the back.

The shortlist may leave habitual winner-pickers with a headache – what, if anything, links these writers and their works? What shared themes or correspondences are here? – but it offers readers thrilling possibilities. Whatever you look for in a novel, whether it be the strange, the foreign (in the best sense), the wonderful, the poignant, or the profound, it is there in the shortlist.