The story of the neglected author
By TOBY LICHTIG
The Man Booker International longlist was announced last week and I’m pleased to report that the TLS has covered – or is poised to cover – all thirteen books on it. It’s an interesting selection, pleasingly diverse, and it affirms, I think, the current rude health of literary translation.
The award is a new-look prize, folding in the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (sponsored by the soon-to-be-defunct Independent print product) with the former Man Booker International Prize, which was a rather odd biennial award for a body of work published in English or available in English translation. The new Man Booker International will run every year and is awarded for a single novel, published in the past year in English translation. The prize money is £50,000 – to be shared between the author and translator. The other shortlistees each get £2,000, to be shared in the same way.
So who’s in the running? Well the critics’ favourite must surely be Elena Ferrante for The Story of the Lost Child – the final instalment in the author’s Neapolitan series. Granted, the new prize is not a lifetime achievement award and The Story of the Lost Child is by no means the best book of the tetralogy (for that you’ll have to go back to Book Two: The Story of a New Name), but Ferrante’s achievement across the whole is so impressive that it would, to my mind, be a great shame if she (and her translator, Ann Goldstein) weren’t honoured for this climax to the project – especially given the fact she was so perversely ignored by the IFFP in previous years. Ferrante failed even to make the IFFP longlist for the first three Neapolitan novels and in fact remains entirely ungarlanded, in both Italy and abroad. Is this the biggest judging failure of recent years? And would it help if Ferrante were, instead of a pseudonymous woman who never appears in public, an intensely photogenic Norwegian male novelist famed for his leather jackets and brooding looks?
There are a couple of big hitters on the longlist with whom Ferrante has to contend: the Nobel Prize laureates Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburo Oe. Pamuk’s novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, concerns the solitary perambulations of a boza hawker (boza is a low-alcohol drink) over forty years in Istanbul. It was given a rousing reception in the TLS by Robert Irwin, who described it as “hugely ambitious – and equally successful in achieving its ambitions”. Writing in the paper next week, Mark Morris will, I might as well break the news, be rather less impressed by Oe’s Death by Water.
On the same page in next week’s paper, Kate Webb is full of praise for Han Kang’s new novel, Human Acts. I mention this because Han also appears on this year’s Man Booker longlist for her previous novel, The Vegetarian, which our critic, Peter Brown, described as “a strange and ethereal fable, rendered stranger still by the cool precision of the prose”. (As I reported recently, Han’s translator, Deborah Smith, has already won an Arts Foundation award for her efforts in bringing the author into English.) Staying, for a moment, in Asia, the longlist also includes the Chinese author Yan Lianke and the Indonesian Eka Kurniawan. Yan’s Four Books – currently verboten in mainland China – concerns the country’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and is set in a re-education camp. Our critic Pierre Fuller was captivated by Yan’s “earthy canvas that captures the gravity of a historical moment while also somehow transcending its time and place . . . . Yan strips a hyper-political moment down to the elements of soil, sun and smelted steel in a desolate landscape where the most basic of desires – to read, worship, have sex – are criminalized”.
Saskia Schäfer, on the other hand, found the widespread praise being heaped on Eka Kurniawan to be rather less justified. “Many Western critics have swooned over Eka’s ability to educate them in Indonesian political history while keeping them entertained”, wrote Schäfer; “they have praised his swaggering impatience with the rules of psychological realism”. Not so our critic, who concluded that “Eka is inserting himself into an expired tradition of political critique” and found herself drowning in “an overdose of murderous slapstick”. For those particularly interested in Indonesia, it may be worth noting that, in the same issue, we ran an article by Tash Aw, drawing attention to some other Indonesian novelists who may perhaps be more deserving of praise than Eka Kurniawan.
But back to that list . . . . There is only one novel from South America, represented by Brazil (and curiously none at all from Spain, which means no Hispanic novels feature). A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar – who until recently was barely known outside of his home country and gave up writing many years ago to become a farmer – is a waif of a novella, featuring a warring couple before, during and after a passionate tryst. Lorna Scott-Fox will be reviewing it in a future issue of the paper.
Representing Africa on the list, we have José Eduardo Agualusa, whose A General Theory of Oblivion – which features an agoraphobic who bricks herself up in Luanda during Angola’s civil war – failed to pique the interest of Lara Pawson. The Congolese author, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, received a more enthusiastic write-up from Michael LaPointe for Tram 83, a “deeply allusive”, jazz-inflected novel set in a bar in an unnamed African country (“Tram 83 seems to anticipate, and parody, its own critical reception, especially its accolades”).
There are two French novels, Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal and Ladivine by Marie NDiaye – the TLS verdicts on those are due to appear next month. The other two European entries are both novellas: White Hunger by the Finnish author Aki Ollikainen (“a striking folk tale about austerity politics”, in the words of Christina Petrie) and A Whole Life by the Austrian Robert Seethaler: an “elegant novella” about a mountain guide, which, for our reviewer, Laura Profumo, “glides forwards with all the soundless wonder of an Alpine mountainscape”.
As well as no Spaniards, there are no Germans and, perhaps even more surprisingly, no Russians on the list (Oleg Pavlov anyone?). Some big names were excluded: Mario Vargas Llosa and Milan Kundera, for example (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lukewarm reception accorded to their latest offerings), as well as Javier Marías and Andreï Makine. Also notable by his absence is a certain Norwegian, who shares with Ferrante a wild and unlikely success story, both popular and critical, for a series of naturalistic novels that have been appearing in English translation over recent years. Now, though, perhaps it really is time for Elena Ferrante – venerated so passionately far and wide, but not, as yet, by those with the keys to the treasure. Either way we’ll find out on May 16.