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Off we go again

Off we go again

The Booker is a creature that never sleeps. No sooner have the flashbulbs stopped popping on this year’s Man Booker International Prize winners, Jokha Alharthi and her translator Marilyn Booth for Celestial Bodies, than cameras and eyes turn to 2020’s incarnation. Last week the new set of judges was unveiled and, as ever, they are an eclectic bunch: the chair is Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, and he will be corralling with literature and translation specialist Lucie Campos; Jennifer Croft, herself a Man Booker International Prize-winning translator with Olga Tokarczuk; the writer Valeria Luiselli; and a former Man Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Jeet Thayil.


The judges bring a real mix of qualities and achievements to the task. Hodgkinson, for example, is a Middle Eastern literature specialist who has also co-edited the first anthology of Nordic short stories in English, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North. Lucie Campos, who enviably divides her time between London and Paris, speaks the small matter of six languages. As well as being a prize-winning translator, Jennifer Croft is a novelist in her own right: Homesick is due to be published in September and, for good measure, she wrote it in Spanish. The Mexican-born New Yorker Valeria Luiselli was longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 for Lost Children Archive, her first novel to be written in English, proof that she is an adroit stylist in more than one language. Jeet Thayil meanwhile is not just a lauded novelist but a prize-winning poet and an avant-garde musician who has collaborated with, among others, the “noise quintet” (strange musicians if they don’t generate noise) Still Dirty and the experimental trio HMT.

Sticking with the unexpected, the small independent publisher Comma Press is bringing out a book of stories, Palestine +100, in which writers imagine the place in 2048, a century after the great displacement of 1948 that occurred with the creation of the state of Israel. The book is being billed as “the first ever collection of Science Fiction from Palestine” – not a sentence many would have expected ever to read. One of the contributing writers is Mazen Maarouf, the Beirut-born but Reykjavik-domiciled novelist who was on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize longlist with Jokes for the Gunmen. The world of books is full of surprises.


Of course the indecently young and indecently talented Daisy Johnson would have made it anyway but her shortlisting last year for the Man Booker Prize with Everything Under can’t but have helped Jonathan Cape to sign up the venerable – well 28-year-old – novelist on a two-book deal. The first of the books, Sisters, a story of a sibling relationship with dark psychological twists, is due for publication next year.


David Nicholls, Man Booker Prize longlisted in 2014 with Us, has a new novel out, Sweet Sorrow. A five-year gap may seem a long one but the multifaceted Nicholls has been busy, not least on his BAFTA-winning adaptation of another Man Booker Prize writer’s work, Edward St Aubyn’s trippy Melrose trilogy. The series, complete with a bravura performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, was consuming: “I had a great time working on it,” said Nicholls recently, “but it was quite a dark world to live in for five years, and I’m pleased to have come out.” One form of escape from Patrick Melrose’s drug-addled world has been turning his own Us into a BBC miniseries, and writing a film script for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.


Chigozie Obioma, Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2015 with The Fishermen, was recently asked what effect being singled out by the prize had on his career. His answer summed up why The Booker Prizes are so important to writers, let alone publishers and readers: “It was a privilege,” said Obioma. “I have worn it as a badge of honour ever since, and I think it has opened many doors for me and my books. . . For writers like me who are engaging with a specific culture, traditions and mythologies of a country like Nigeria, a place the world cares very little about, most international media won’t be interested in the work were it not brought to their attention by a prize body like the Booker.” There’s a raison d’être if ever there were one.