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Why pithy is good

Why pithy is good

Often, when discussing a book, it is hard to say exactly why it is so good. It is obvious it is good, you know it is good, but, when forced to pin down reasons things can simply deteriorate into general waffle about rounded characters and poetic language. Valerie Luiselli, one of this year’s International Booker Prize judges, had no problem in identifying what it is about The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison, that struck her forcibly: “It is very hard to immediately, in the space of a few lines, construct a world”, she said on the “watch party” video, but that is what Rijneveld does. That world is one “in which the reader is going to live for a while” so that instant delineation puts the reader straight into the story.


Rijneveld’s book deals with the aftermath of a young boy who falls though the ice while skating and is “narrated” through the thoughts of his 10-year-old sibling. The writer and translator’s gift, said Luiselli, is to make you feel you are experiencing the events of the novel “through the consciousness of this narrator”. Startlingly, Rijneveld traced this shocking start to the story to their own childhood when, aged three, their 12-year-old brother died. The impact, of course, was profound on every member of the family but Rijneveld decided years ago that when they became a writer they would use this tragedy in their work.


Luiselli also made an interesting point about Hutchison’s translation. “When a book is perceived as a good translation,” she said, “it is perceived as such on the basis of it not seeming like a translation.” The better the translation, she suggested, the more invisible the translator “because the less they want to stamp their own identity into a book”. Hutchison’s skill is to seem barely present at all. As Hutchison herself points out, there are good and bad forms of invisibility and she and her peers used to suffer more from the bad sort – the invisibility of translators to the wider world and the idea that they were merely facilitators for authors. The International Booker Prize, she says, has shown how important and skilled their work really is.


The International Booker Prize shortlisted authors now have their own suggested playlists on Deezer but they are not the only Booker Prize writers to have acquired a musical soundtrack. Chigozie Obioma, twice nominated for the Booker Prize, has shared a playlist of songs that “I listen to again and again, songs that inspire both creativity and reflection.” His choice is perhaps more personal than that suggests and more thoughtful: “The list also reflects who I have come to become – a person who has lived in many places and speaks many languages, including Igbo, Yoruba, and Turkish” and who finds songs from around the world to be aids to relaxation, introductions to beauty, and prompts to lamentation.


Just a reminder: Tuesday 28 July sees the 2020 Booker Prize longlist revealed. The judges have been hard at work for months, never more than inches from a book (or more likely several books) and putting their lives on hold, and now the first fruits of their considerable labours will be unveiled.


In the wake of her Booker Prize win, Bernardine Evaristo seems to have become the go-to spokeswoman on any number of subjects. She has, naturally – given the nature of her winning Girl, Woman, Other – been much in demand for her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement but her most recent comments have been about another prejudice, age. People are “brainwashed” she reckons into thinking that each age milestone – 40, 50, 60 – is bad and so is determined to dispel this “negative” view where possible. How? By telling people her age – she’s 60 – whenever the topic crops up. “I try to be really positive about getting older,” she says, “because our society tells us otherwise: we’re supposed to be completely marginalised, uninteresting, physically incapable and mentally deteriorating as we get older – and that’s a load of nonsense.” To any gainsayer, she need only point at her Booker Prize triumph and her subsequent stratospheric profile and the argument is over.