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Out of Africa and out of the prize

Out of Africa and out of the prize

A sign of the depth of the passions raised by the Man Booker International Prize was given this week by a simple headline in the Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald. It read simply: ‘Africa out of 2017 Man Booker Prize’. The reference was to Black Moses by the Congolese author Alain Mabanckou failing to make the Man Booker International shortlist. Technically it is Mabanckou who is out of the reckoning and at a pinch the Congo (Mabanckou is actually Franco-Congolese) so for a whole continent to feel so bad seems a bit tough . . .


Mabanckou's translator, Helen Stevenson, recently reflected on the distinctiveness of the author. The fact that he's African, she said, means that: ‘his French is stretched into more different, unusual shapes. He has none of the assumptions of the French literary élite, but has mastered their mannerisms and the result is often very funny.’ But the job comes with other benefits too: ‘I like translating a deep male voice; it takes me out of myself.’


Coincidentally, this week sees another African novelist, Chigozie Obioma, Man Booker shortlisted in 2015 for The Fishermen, in the news. Obioma, originally from Nigeria though now living in the US, has just been signed up by the publishers Little, Brown & Co for his new novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, to be published in 2019. A case, clearly, of ‘Africa wins publishing deal’.


Still on the subject of national pride, congratulations are due to Mohammed Hasan Alwan from Saudi Arabia (though living in Canada – a bit of a theme here) who has just been announced as the winner of the 10th International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the ‘Arab Man Booker’, for his novel A Small Death. The prize consists of $50,000 plus the guarantee of the winning novel being translated into English (‘The reading public wins Arab Fiction prize’?)


The translator Daniel Hahn, one of the 2017 Man Booker International judges, has been reflecting on the process. Asked how he managed to work his way through the 126 submitted novels he replied: ‘Quickly. It’s difficult, and it makes you a little bit crazy . . . and it doesn’t get any easier. Reading a book a day is perfectly possible so long as you don’t have a huge number of other things to do. The difficulty is that we all have other jobs.’ Hahn was himself a shortlisted translator last year for his work on José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, and is a stout defender of the prize's decision to split the prize money between author and translator. ‘What we know is that if a book is a fantastic piece of writing in English,’ he says, ‘then at least two people must have done a brilliant job to make that happen. One of the reasons the Man Booker Prize decided to split it in this way is not just because the translator did the work, but also that symbolically it’s important that the translator is recognised as a co-creator.’


The fastidiousness of the judging process evidenced by Hahn and his colleagues finds no favour at Shortlist magazine. It has just published a refreshingly candid article entitled: ‘I judged the International Booker Prize shortlist by their covers’. Stating clearly that ‘I haven’t read any of them and I haven’t the faintest jot what they’re about’, the writer went on to state the appeal or otherwise of each book based entirely on his/her reaction to the dust jacket. The result was a resounding win for Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream, which features a horse smothered by black disks that may well be LP records. Shortlist's judge gave his/her reasoning: ‘This is the best book on the list. This is the winner of the International Man Booker Prize. Great stuff. Such a striking cover: busy as all hell, fancy disruptive lettering, lots of scattered LPs and a goddamn horse, for flip’s sake. It’s clear to anyone looking at the cover what the book is about: it’s about a horse, obviously. That’s what a cover is supposed to do: tell you what’s happening inside the book. This is clearly a screenshot from the part in the book where the horse gets trapped under all the records, which is one of the best bits.’ There you have it. Whether this method will be adopted by the Booker Prize Foundation Advisory Committee remains to be seen.