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Eyes turn (Middle) East

Eyes turn (Middle) East

Thanks in part to the success of Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has become one to watch. Saadawi's tale of murder and monsters in US-occupied Iraq won the award in 2014 and (part of the prize is funding for an English translation) it has now been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This break-out book means publishers will be paying special attention to The Second War of the Dog by Ibrahim Nasrallah, just announced as this year's winner and the recipient of the accompanying cheque for $50,000. Nasrallah has led a full life: he was born in 1954 to Palestinian parents, spent his childhood in the Alwehdat Palestinian Refugee Camp in Amman, Jordan and began his working life as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Jordan and becoming a writer. His futuristic novel draws on his accumulated knowledge, with the central character, Rashid, changing from an opponent of the regime to a corrupt, materialistic and unscrupulous extremist. Nasrallah's is a somewhat bleak vision of human beings as intrinsically savage and the world a place where human values are increasingly ignored. Why it will undoubtedly be snapped up by publishers elsewhere in the world (it was initially published by Arab Scientific Publishers) is that its themes are global: “The Second War of the Dog is, in my opinion, a warning of what we could become in the future, “ says Nasrallah. “The novel starts off at the moment of a loss of certainty, that loss of trust in those whom you interact closely with – that neighbour, brother, father, or whoever it may be. . .  and suggests that if we continue on our current path, we will reach a future where we would become mostly annihilistic.”

Another of the Man Booker International nominees, the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, author of Flights, recently revealed an entirely unexpected hairstyling fact. Tokarczuk sports a stylishly unkempt coiffure in which dreadlocks feature prominently. This, presumably, is a hang-over from her hippyish upbringing and youth? Not so; the hairstyle has a name – plica polonica or “Polish tangle” – and dates back to the 17th century. “In a certain sense we can be proud to have introduced this hairstyle to Europe,” Tokarczuk says. “Plica polonica should be added to the list of our inventions, alongside crude oil, pierogi and vodka.”

Hanya Yanagihara, whose A Little Life was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and sold gazillions of copies, might, you would think, have used the proceeds to become a full-time novelist. In fact, in 2017, she took a job as the editor of the New York Times “T” lifestyle supplement. It wasn't just that book sales, even her healthy ones, aren't enough to sustain a Manhattan lifestyle, but that the magazine world offers a different type of life (and health insurance, she points out): “I liked the kind of sense, unlike a book, where it takes however many years for the poor writer to write and then 18 months to produce, that with a magazine you have a chance to make it new every single time.” She likes the collaborative side of things too, not least as a buffer against her own worst instincts: “Magazines are very collaborative. It is something that’s created by many and that’s wonderful, because fiction writing is so interior and makes you into an awful person in a lot of ways.” The one area where her novelist and editor roles come into conflict is in maintaining her energy, so she stipulated one rule to her employers, informing them bluntly: “I won’t go out at night.” 

Congratulations to Kamila Shamsie, longlisted last year for the Man Booker for Home Fire, who has now been shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. She has some Man Booker company in the form of Elif Batuman, who was herself a Man Booker International judge in 2013, and who has been nominated for The Idiot. Just to prove how multiple and long are the Man Booker tentacles, one of the judges is Imogen Stubbs, reprising the role she held for the Man Booker back in 2007. The winner will be announced on 6th June.