Art & Lit

Review: The International Man Booker Prize Shortlist

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This year’s international man Booker prize shortlist offers a glittering array of intense, often disquieting and always refreshing fiction. These acclaimed works of translated novels are each uniquely singular.

  1. Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell (US)

Mathias Énard is a darling of the French literary canon, winning a series of prestigious Prixs- the Prix du Livre Inter, Prix Décembre, Prix littéraire de la Porte Dorée, the list goes on. His signature is the convoluted, often kaleidoscopic style of writing that compels the critics and repels the readers. Indeed, the Zone, considered his major work, is an epic consisted entirely of a single sentence. The Compass, which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, arguably the greatest French literary prize, is no less difficult to navigate. Encased in a threadbare structure of a wildly digressive plot, the novel is set in Vienna, charting the insomniac musings of the protagonist, Franz Ritter, over the course of a single night. Although we get glimpses into Franz’s sudden, might-be-fatal illness, his bouts of shame for past secrets, and his unreciprocated desire for a fellow academic, these are mere backdrops to images, thoughts, and flashbacks that entangle at the fore. Delightfully unreadable, Compass is swarming with exotic melodies, name-droppings, and vivid mosaic-like scenes from the ‘East’, as Franz struggles with the full might of his erudition to grasp the elusive concept of ‘the Orient’ and ‘the music’. If you enjoy a challenging read, or looking for a literary fix after that In Search of Lost Time marathon, this might be the book for you.

  1. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen (US)

Although the novel is about a life of a stand-up comic, A Horse Walks into a Bar is anything but funny. In a sensitive and deeply emotional account of a past-prime comedian –a self-proclaimed ‘bottom-feeder’- who is struggling to work his magic for one more night. As readers go along with the protagonist Dov Greenstein’s novel-length comedy routine, it becomes increasingly harder to laugh at his distasteful jokes yet increasingly prone to empathizing with this unlikeable middle-aged man asking the most uneasy questions. The distinctly Israeli texture of the novel only helps to enhance the pathos with surprising sense of relevance even for readers without former affiliations to the culture.  This book is an immersive read for both the fans and haters of the stand-up comedy, but tread carefully if you’re not up for an emotional rollercoaster.

Delightfully unreadable, Compass is swarming with exotic melodies, name-droppings, and vivid mosaic-like scenes from the ‘East’, as Franz struggles with the full might of his erudition to grasp the elusive concept of ‘the Orient’ and ‘the music’.

  1. The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett (UK) and Don Shaw (UK)

A Norwegian bestseller, the Unseen is a clear, minimalist prose that charts the life of a single forlorn family living and maintaining the Barrøy Island. In a style as precise and crystalline like icicles, Jacobsen describes the stormy ocean and its manifold secrets. The gruff, no-nonsense family scours the shore for washed-up bottled messages and colorful ruins, because ‘Whatever is washed up on an island belongs to the finder and the islanders find a lot.’ The novel is a blunt yet poignant account of a family, with their life-size dreams, thronging problems, and quiet perseverance through adversities.

  1. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra (US)

Sonja is going through a mid-life crisis. To remedy that, she is learning to drive. Dorthe Nors, acclaimed in the English-speaking world for her remarkably short yet witty short stories, brings to us a lighthearted yet relatable story of a forty-something facing life’s small yet significant challenges. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is not for everyone. It is a lighthearted read, with patches of melancholy, nostalgia, and funny moments sewn upon it like a childhood quilt. It is not intense, nor plot-driven, but gives us a calm and insightful account of a woman inspecting her life and looking back, questioning what went wrong and trying to make the best of her life from what’s remaining. If you’re not up for a mouthful like Compass or a chilling page-turner like the Fever Dream, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal might be the book for you- it gives you bite-size pleasure in its simple prose, and makes for a relaxing but an enjoyable read.

  1. Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange (UK)

A personal favorite, Judas is yet another accomplished work by a master comfortable in his game. Amos Oz is the most internationally acclaimed Israeli writer living, with his works translated into 42 languages and read worldwide. Judas charts the adventures of Schmuel Asch, a Masters student with a big beard and a penchant for sudden tears. When Schmuel abandons his thesis-his parents have just gotten bankrupt, and his girlfriend is getting married to her ex- Schmuel becomes a paid companion to a disabled intellectual recluse. Their discussions on religion, politics, art and beauty are accessibly profound as well as deeply thought-provoking. A must for anyone interested in Christianity, politics, and the meaning of friendship. Otherwise, Judas is a great way to meet one of the most important writers in the 21st century at his best.

  1. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell (US)

A flash of new talent from Argentina, Fever Dream is Schweblin’s first novel as well as being her first work to be translated into English. (She had previously published three short story collections). Amanda, blinded, is trapped in a hospital bed. The only respite from this claustrophobic confinement seems to be an eerie and deeply unsettling dialogue with a freakish child, David. The novel is thrilling and immersive, full of disjointed images and pieces of disturbing conversations that refuse to click together. With the feverishly haunting presence of the ‘worms’ or ‘something very much like worms and the exact moment when they touch your body for the first time”, the novel creates a nightmarish dreamscape permeated with an encroaching sense of doom. Recommended for readers easily bored by winding descriptions and slow plot development- Fever Dream, as novels go, is an overdose of suspense.

With the feverishly haunting presence of the ‘worms’ or ‘something very much like worms and the exact moment when they touch your body for the first time”, the novel creates a nightmarish dreamscape permeated with an encroaching sense of doom

For the multilingual readers, there is the extra pleasure of sampling some of the finest translations the English-speaking world has to offer. From enjoying the virtuoso performances of expert translators Charlotte Mandell and Jessica Cohen, who have long wrestled with their respective writers’ innovative styles, to appreciating the fine-grain details of translation in the Norwegian dialect-treatment of The Unseen, the shortlist gives us an exciting range of singular novels, and the translations that attempt to capture their essence in English.

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