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A foreign fiction fix

A foreign fiction fix

For a fuller flavour of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize itself there are other solutions on offer. A video glimpse of the shortlist announcement party can be found here while a shortlist podcast, which includes the prize announcement, discussions with two of the judges (Nick Barley and Helen Mort) and a conversation about the niceties of translation with a practitioner, Lawrence Schimel, can be found here.


It is always curious to see which aspects of a prize shortlist catch the imagination. This year, It is the inclusion of two Israeli novelists –Amos Oz and David Grossman – that seems to have struck a chord. Quite why that should be is hard to fathom, both novelists after all are long-established and prize-winning writers. Nevertheless, on Twitter, the Wild West of comment, assorted Antisemites relished the opportunity to air their prejudices. One tweeter who posted his conspiracy theory – ‘Jews spearhead Rothschild cultural monopoly. 4 of 6 finalists are Jewish’ – was quickly shut down by Oz's daughter Fania Oz-Sulzberger’s: ‘Quintessential vintage Antisemitism: Jews control literature. I almost love it.’ In fact only three of the shortlistees are Jewish, the third being Samanta Schweblin. Meanwhile numerous websites around the world have picked up on the fact that Grossman's book, A Horse Walks into a Bar, is a comic novel (or at least contains comedy). That fact that people should still find it surprising that comedy has a role in high-grade fiction is, well, surprising.


Another surprise is that in the week of the first round of the French presidential elections no one seems to have picked up on the prescience of Mathias Enard, another of the shortlistees. Compass is a novel about how the West views the East. Enard has previously discussed how the focus on Islamic fundamentalism ‘hinders any prospect of discovering the region’s historical richness and variety. And it obscures the dialogue that could develop between the Orient and the Occident.’ The attitudes towards the Middle East shown by the main characters in the novel, the musician Ritter and the young scholar Sarah, amount to a plea for a less judgmental perspective. As Ritter puts it: ‘What we identify in these atrocious decapitations as ‘other’, ‘different’, ‘Oriental’ is just as ‘other’, ‘different’, and ‘Oriental’ for an Arab, a Turk or an Iranian.’


Congratulations to Rose Tremain, a Man Booker judge in 2000 and shortlistee in 1989. She has just been picked for the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize for the Spirit of Place. It would be impossible to write a novel without invoking ‘the spirit of place’, whether that be north London, a First World War battlefield or the inside of a character's head, so Tremain is really competing against every other novel published.