On Thursday evening in London the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize “ceremony” will take place and the winning author and translator will be announced and handed 5,000 pounds each. As a member of the Shadow Jury this year I managed to read fourteen of the fifteen longlisted novels and of course have a strong opinion as to the worthy winner of the award.
The Shadow Jury will be releasing a “press release” with our winner from the fifteen longlisted novels, so I won’t overshadow the shadow and will restrict my views to the six shortlisted novels and why I think only two are in contention for the main award.
In 2011 the Man Booker Prize judges were accused of “dumbing down” the award, “sacrificing literary merit on the altar of readability”. We even had the inaugural Folio Prize pitching their award at “excellence: to identify works of fiction in which the story being told and the subjects being explored achieve their most perfect and thrilling expression.” A veiled swipe at the dumbed down Booker Prize.
Here’s my rant – this year’s final six books do not represent the best six novels in translation in the UK for the last twelve months. For starters Elena Ferrante’s stunning “The Story Of A New Name” didn’t even make the longlist? The six that you have been presented with, to me, have dumbed down the whole prize. We have two short story collections, two works that barely make up 100 pages, a simple love story and only one work that would take you more than a single sitting to finish. In a world of instant gratification it appears as though this year’s judges have gone for the quick and simple as opposed to the works of literary merit.
Onto the books and their relative merits
A collection of short stories, heavily laden with metaphor and the brutality of war. Magic realism (rabbit’s laying eggs?) but on the cutting edge. I’m not convinced that this is a solid enough work and consistent throughout to be celebrated as a winner of the award, but Hassan Blasim is definitely a writer to follow, his time will come.
I reviewed this novel under its original title of “the briefcase” as a shortlisted work on the Man Asia Prize – at that time I didn’t think it was worthy of that specific award as other works appeared more powerful (including the winner Tan Twan Eng’s “The Garden of Evening Mists”). This is an empty and lonely novel, one that draws heavily on emptiness as a theme in both the content and the style. A work I enjoyed, one that is now badly titled but not a standout work that deserves the prize.
When I was reading this I couldn’t wait for instalment number three to be released, but to be 100% honest I have received my copy of the latest “Struggle” and am having to wait until I catch up on a couple more works from the Best Translated Book Award list. This raw, exposed outpouring of a middle aged man’s soul onto a page and the day to day minutiae is so masterfully crafted you actually struggle to put the work down. Having said that this is very much a male centric story, Karl Ove wondering why he has to raise his children, why can’t he write, his ego driven self centred world is there for all to see. Personally I think it is worthy of the award, but second guessing three female judges I think it will possibly come up short.
A fellow Shadow Jury member has called this an overblown short story – I concur. All up it would weigh in under 100 pages, and with an author who is more well known for his “young adult” fiction this does come across as a simple tale for that audience (ones who haven’t read historical World War II fiction before). A well written story with hunger, cold and prejudice the main themes, But there’s not a whole lot of meat on the meal’s bones. Too flimsy to win this award.
What do I write here? I didn’t like this short story collection, even though I have enjoyed Ogawa’s work before. Basically the same themes of decay, death, food mixed up to look like a poor David Lynch film are all mashed up here over eleven versions of the same short story, just with an interconnecting theme and a circular ending. I can’t see this winning purely based on my own dislike (her other work “The Diving Pool” was much better and didn’t even make the shortlist in 2009).
Short? Yes. Shallow? No. Compared to “A Meal In Winter” this is oil and water. A short work of incredible depth, an internal monologue revealing the East/West Berlin issues, a family in crisis and all set to a simple metaphor of a meal of mussels (slowly opening, but left too long they go off). In my mind the winner of the award simply because it is the stand out work of the six books that were shortlisted. Amazing that this took 23 years before it was translated into English!!!
There you have it, my sledge of the official judges, my opinion on who I think they’ll award the prize to, so let’s see what they come up with – A Meal In Winter?