The International Booker Prize 2020

Six titles have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020. The prize was instituted as a celebration of the art of translations. These are:

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi-Iran), translated by Anonymous, published by Europa Editions. 

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Spanish-Argentina), translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh, published by Charco Press. 

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany-German), translated by Ross Benjamin, published by Quercus. 

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish-Mexico), translated by Sophie Hughes, Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese-Japan), translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Harvill Secker

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch-Netherlands), translated by Michele Hutchison, published by Faber & Faber

26 August 2020 is when the winner will be revealed.

Lists of any kind are just that a list. They are not necessarily exhaustive but representative. In the case of literary prize lists, there are many factors at play. It is not only highlighting exceptional literary talent that is worth having on one’s radar but also the immense variety of writing styles, stories, playing with the form, etc. It is a pleasure to assess the range in a shortlist of six titles. They sweep across geographies, folklore, magic realism, genres, and time periods. It is quite a heady experience.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann is historical fiction, set during the Thirty Years War. The central character is the legendary German trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel about whom many folktales exist in Germany. According to legend he is a German character dating back to the Medieval times but was turned into a Protestant hero at the time of the Dutch War of Independence. It is upon these elements that Kehlmann basis his novel Tyll. There is the classic story of Tyll, running away from home after his father, an avid reader, was accused of practising sorcery by the Protestants. While on the run he discovers his talent for dance, jugglery, walking on a tightrope and being a travelling entertainer who knows how to tell a good story. Tyll is created like a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. But much in keeping with the personality of its protagonist, the chapters can be juggled about to create a narrative of their own. The account of Tyll travelling around the region performing, creating his own style of mayhem, against the backdrop of the war is chaotic but it has its charming moments when there are furious and deeply insightful conversations about the merits of the two languages and their literature — English and German. And this preoccupation with language becomes apparent when reading Daniel Kehlmann’s speech in praise of his then translator Carol Brown Janeway. There are moments in the novel when the horrors of the war are impossible to speak of and it is in such instances that the author relies upon magic realism to weave in folkloric elements. Surprisingly they do not seem disruptive. Far from it. The reader accepts these imaginative details easily. It is beautifully done. At many levels Tyll deserves to be recognised for not only its literary merit, but its literary craftsmanship.

Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa will probably be considered by many as a favourite to win. More so because this scifi tale is eerily prescient in imagining many of our realities of today. Odd is it not given that the Japanese novel was published in 1994 and translated into English recently. It belongs to the early writings of Ogawa who has a massive fan following. Many will want her to win but the novel has the markings of a fairly new writer which she was then having begun writing in 1988. In all likelihood her fiction of today and more than 50 books later must be very different. But Memory Police stands out for it’s very scary parallels to what many nations are experiencing today. It is grim to read. But then again that is the hallmark of classical scifi, to be able to nudge the boundaries of relaity sufficiently to talk about that which is plausible, even if it seems to be in an imagined realm. So while reading about these horrors is discomforting, there are tiny technical details within the plot that do not sit easy with me. For instance the very basic premise of making memories disappear. Long term memories vanish with a few individuals retaining them and they are eventually hunted down but what is the rationale for the characters recalling their lives of the previous days and months? This selective memory is inexplicable. Also having recently finished watching 100+ episodes of Person of Interest on Netflix, the machine who is at the heart of this AI story has its memory scrubbed clean every day at midnight. It is a fascinating story. Perhaps it is unfair to compare a story written in 1994 and a TV series written in 2013-16 but “Memory” and “Time” will continue to fascinate writers and scifi writers are known to think beyond.

The other four books on the shortlist are equally interesting. Original fiction with some such as The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree relying on magic realism as well to tell a story. But in all probability it is Hurricane Season that will be a close contender with Tyll for the Booker crown tomorrow. It is an extraordinarily immersive story told in these long, breathless sentences, describing the death of a woman in a village. A woman who was known to many but also shunned and lived on the fringes of society for the peculiar space she occupied. She was accused of being a witch. The novel begins with her murder and then from there it develops. It is a story that needs to be read out aloud for the true impact to be felt. There are so many details in it that can only be visualised while reading the story out aloud. Again, this story like Tyll stands out for its literary craftsmanship and the manner in which it has carried forward beautifully from the language of origin to the destination langauge. The Adventures of China Iron  and The Discomfort of Evening deserve a place on the shortlist for their experimentation. The new literary talent deserves to be recognised but is it worthy of the top prize — doubt it.

25 August 2020

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