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Six remain

Six remain

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, translated by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)


Stage two has been successfully completed. The herculean task confronting Bettany Hughes and her fellow Man Booker International Prizes judges – how to whittle down 108 novels written in 25 different languages – has come into the sharpest focus with their announcement of the shortlist. After a second reading, seven of the books on their longlist have gone and just six remain, standing tall. The polyglot nature of the reading remains, however, with five languages (Arabic, French, German, Polish and Spanish) and six nationalities represented.

The inclusion of Olga Tokarczuk raises the tantalising possibility that the Polish writer might become the first novelist to win the prize twice (matching the achievement of J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel in the Man Booker Prize). Regardless, the odds seem to favour a female winner with Juan Gabriel Vásquez being the sole male representative on the shortlist. What is certain is that a female translator will be picking up the Man Booker International Prize gong on 21 May since all the shortlisted translators are women. Gender studies students and professionals might like to research whether there is some specifically female sensibility brought to play when it comes to transmuting the words of one language into another. Not that this slanting was intentional but was, says Hughes, a “happy by-product” of “very ungendered discussions”.

Notable too is the fact that the old literary world order has shifted and Europe can’t take its supremacy for granted any more: two of the shortlisted authors are from South America and one from Oman. And the established publishing houses have also been thoroughly chastised. All the shortlisted novels are published by independent presses with Fitzcarraldo Editions wearing the widest grin courtesy of its two nominations.

If these are the discernible patterns, the novels themselves are startlingly disparate. No one can accuse the judges of looking for a particular theme when the plots involve the emotional lives and relationships of three sisters in a changing Oman (Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi); a candid sort-of memoir of the formation of a French woman from 1941 to 2006 (The Years by Annie Ernaux); a poetic pilgrimage in Japan by a betrayed beard specialist (The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann); a tale of an eccentric woman, deaths and dogs (Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk); an account of assassination, conspiracy, storytelling and missing vertebrae in Bogota (The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez); and counting bodies and the search for a meaningful life in an ash-covered city (The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán).

Nor can anyone accuse the judges of slacking in their remit to bring to wider attention the best writing in translation. Their list is full of riches, it is strange and foreign (in the best sense), labyrinthine and intriguing, even – perhaps – eccentric in the inclusion of Ernaux’s genre-stretching autobiographical work. As she and her fellows embark on the novels for the third time, what Hughes promises readers will confront are books “asking big platonic, Socratic questions about the nature of peace and happiness; and a lot of dead bodies, for these are all confrontations of mortality”.