The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante (translated by Anne Goldstein) – Man Booker International Prize 2016 and Best Translated Book Award 2016

Today I’m looking at a book that has made both the Man Booker International Prize shortlist and the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for 2016, a novel I read on its release back in September 2015, Elena Ferrante’s “The Story Of The Lost Child” (translated by Ann Goldstein).
I am going to imagine a situation, I am a reader, I want to try something from a well-known prize shortlist, I want something by a female writer, something European, Ferrante it is (I could choose “Murder Most Serene” by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, but that’s highly unlikely, Ferrante is the only qualifier under the “female, European” criteria on both lists, Wittkop not being eligible for the Man Booker and therefore not on the list). I am surprised, the local bookshop has quite a few copies, must be a good book, I’m not even going to read the back cover, it may influence my purchasing decision, that’s it, mind is made up, cash changes hands, I’m now the proud owner of a “literary” work from Italy. Can’t wait to snuggle down and read it…
I seem to recall somebody at the book club mentioning this anonymous Italian writer, something about “Ferrante Fever”. Being a strong anti-vaccine activist, I haven’t received my inoculations to stop the malaise hitting me, but with a pretty solid immune system I’m very confident that although some symptoms may appear, I will not succumb to a full blown fever, I’ve read four volumes (and am about to start a fifth) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s personal struggle, if that didn’t give me night sweats and fatigue I’m fairly confident a publicity shy Italian will carry no germs.
The first pages have an “Index of Characters”, we start off with the “Cerullo family (the shoemaker’s family), Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila. She was born in August 1944, and is sixty-six when she disappears from Naples without a trace. At the age of sixteen, she married Stefano Carracci, but during a vacation on Ischia she falls in love with Nino Sarratore, for whom she leaves her husband. After the disastrous end of her relationship with Nino, the birth of her son Gennaro (also called Rino), and the discovery that Stefano is expecting a child with Ada Cappuccio, Lila leaves him definitively. She moves with Enzo Scanno to San Giovanni a Teduccio, but several years later she returns to the neighbourhood with Enzo and Gennaro.”
WHAT? “The neighbourhood”? What neighbourhood? Who are these people? She disappears without a trace? When? If so why is she in this book? Who is Enzo?
Damn this list of people, I’m going to start reading it.
Okay, the first page and a half we have Lila, Nino, Dede and Elsa (the sentence introducing them reads “In reality, what mattered more than that offense was the mention of Dede and Elsa.”), Marcello Solara, Gennaro, Stefano and then it spirals a few more pages with some bloke called Pietro turning up.
I better go back to the list of characters….no joy…back to the book.
Nino goes to Naples, Lena to Florence, but who is Adele in Milan?
Let’s face it the foundations, the very core has been laid in the previous three works, well and truly before you even open this book.
Yes, of course, it is a measured opening here, it is slowly reintroducing us to the people, reminding us of the affair Lena is having, re-establishing the various cities and their significance and of course we need to be reminded of the influence that Lila plays over Lena’s life.
But in my opinion, the whole scenario is bizarre – how can this book be up for these awards? The book, to a new reader, makes no sense, who are these people? Maybe the back cover would help you out, give you an idea of what is going on….WHAT, it is just reviews?? Ohhh it’s on the front cover “The Fourth and Final Neapolitan Novel”? Why didn’t anybody tell me? 
I know I would probably be living in a cave not to know this is part of a series, but I’m trying to make a point okay?!?
I know this rambling is not really a review of Ferrante’s latest per se, however what is the point of adding yet another view to the plethora of opinions that are out in cyberspace? It wouldn’t count for much at all, if anything. This rant is merely my opinion as to the merits of this work winning either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Neither of these prizes is given for a body of work (although the Man Booker International Prize was for a body of work, not a specific book, prior to this year, it is no longer the case). As a standalone novel I was seriously disappointed that it made either list, let alone both. Is this on these lists as a consolation for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ignoring the first three instalments? Or the Best Translated Book Award feeling guilty that the opener in the series “My Brilliant Friend” was completely overlooked and the following two, although being shortlisted, were beaten by László Krasznahorkai (“Seiobo There Below”) and Can Xu (“The Last Lover”)?
Let’s face it, book number four is going to be bought by people who have read numbers 1-3, number four is going to be liked by people who have already read 1,200 pages about Lena and Lila, it’s a conclusion, people like closure, they’ll feel as though they’ve lost a friend but they’ve gained an experience.
Let’s have a look at the Goodreads reviews of the Ferrante fever:
“My Brilliant Friend” – average 3.9 from 35,557 ratings (30% are 5 star)
“The Story of a New Name” – average 4.4 from 15,305 ratings (52% are 5 star)
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” – average 4.32 from 11,401 ratings (48% are 5 star)
“The Story of the Lost Child” – average 4.42 from 9,149 ratings (56% are 5 star)
Number of ratings decreasing, as you would expect whilst people make their way through the books, and of course there will always be people who drop off the bandwagon along the way, but the ratings themselves are increasing the further people get into the works. Another interesting point is the lowest average scores come for the first novel, a work people may have tried and decided to go no further, only adding fuel to the fire that a score will increase the further you travel along the series journey, only diehards are going to read 1,600 pages.
Personally I did not enjoy the third in the series anywhere near as much as the first two (my review here reflected that) http://messybooker.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/those-who-leave-and-those-who-stay.htmland this feeling carried over to “The Story of The Lost Child”, although I did think it was much stronger than “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”. Having struggled with writing a review for this book when the reading public has the fever, with four books all in the best seller lists, I’ve resigned myself to just presenting my view that as a standalone novel this book should not be on the award shortlists. You watch it win both.

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Ladivine – Marie Ndiaye (translated by Jordan Stump) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

And so she said nothing.
Readers of translated fiction would probably have come across Marie NDiaye through her 2009 Prix Goncourt winning work “Three Strong Women, the work also making the shortlist of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014 (the Award won by Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s “The Sound of Things Falling – translated by Anne McLean). The English translation of her latest work Ladivine, just being released in the United Kingdom and is scheduled for release in the United States next week.
If you were to read this book looking for a linear narrative, or a simple plot, you would be disappointed, whilst basically we can follow the lives of three women, Ladivine, Clarisse (or Malinka) and Ladvine, the work is a lot more complex than what appears on the surface.
In the opening pages we learn about Clarisse Rivière, who travels incognito to Bordeaux on the first Tuesday of each month to visit her mother Ladivine, but Clarisse isn’t actually Clarisse, she’s Malinka, and she’s ashamed of her past;
Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and never would go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet – everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder as at the wrist.
And the face that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?
Whilst not explicit, Ladivine is dark skinned and Clarisse light skinned, Malika, becoming Clarisse and attempting to escape her heritage, is this a story of displacement, but one where our protagonist wants to be displaced?
A novel that is rich with emotion, here’s a few words taken from a single page – intelligence, ingenuity, strategy, stubborn, immovable, failure, resolute, evasive, fear, compassion. A roller-coaster of family manipulation, personal highs and lows and confused self-awareness.
As a reader you move through extremely touching sections, where you feel the daughter’s rejection of her mother, a woman who called her only child “my princess”, a single mother who worked as a servant and cleaner to raise her daughter, and then to be rejected!
A theme that runs throughout is rejection, whether it is of your own family, of your roots, of your culture, of your partner, and this theme isn’t only restricted to Clarisse and her rejection of her mother, she is also hiding behind a façade;
How she loved her face in the morning, powdered, serious and inanimate!
That was how Clarisse was meant to be in the eyes in the world, a wonderful girl whose good points were all you ever saw, because there were no bad ones. And how that Clarisse was loved!
Here I’ve really only touched on the opening sections, quite soon thereafter, her daughter has moved out, her husband has left and she cannot share the pain with her mother, as she keeps her mother a secret from her family, she keeps her family, and even her daughter, a secret from her mother. She cannot share her pain, and conversely she could not share the joy of having a daughter.
Her daughter Ladivine, who telephoned often, and her co-workers at the restaurant, and Richard Rivière himself, who dutifully called once a month and wired her money she never spent, they were all doing their best, discreetly, affectionately, sometimes with openly expressed concern, to rescue her from humiliation.
But she had never felt any such thing. Nor was she humiliated that people thought her humiliated, only vaguely surprised.
The novel doesn’t simply cover the mother Ladivine and the daughter Malika/Clarisse, it moves to the story of the daughter/grand-daughter Ladivine, and her relationship with her father and her husband and children. Although the main character women in this novel (the two Ladivine’s and Clarisse) are “storng women” I feel their nonchalant behaviour, accepting manner, working continually to simply fit in makes this novel “Three Benevolent Women” not “Three Strong Women”. The opening quote I used is one that does crop up a few times and it does define these women, they simply say nothing.
Ladivine had met him after two aimless years at the University of Bordeaux, which, on a whim and a friend of a friend’s vague promise of lodging, she’d left for Berlin, with no great enthusiasm, under the illusion that time and life would go by more quickly if she moved on, stupidly, because she had no plans, no hopes, because at twenty-one she felt tired and worn, and she saw Marko at the watch counter of the Hermannplatz Karstadt, where he’d recently found work, and realised that a young man like him, with his long hair, his big glasses, his delicate, kindly, clam, endlessly patient face would never feel the need to hurt anyone at all, that there was a kind of glory about him that he didn’t work at and didn’t believe in, that that word would have made him laugh, as he was a practical man, and this serene scepticism was an element of his grace, since he had no knowledge of that grace, since he had no access to it.
As per usual I would rather not give too much of the plot away here, so I am quite restricted in the amount of information I can share here, doing my best to stay within the boundaries of the book’s blurb and inner sleeve description. Although I will say I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the story of Ladivine and Malika/Clarisse for 300+ pages when it was moving quite rapidly in the first 100!!!
This is a novel that has a blend of genres, a melting pot of styles, making it a difficult work to simply categorise, that is not a bad thing, fresh voices and young writers pushing the literary boundaries are more than welcome on my shelves. In fact I’ll review another recent release by a female writer in translation in the next couple of days that very much so pushes the boundaries.

A worthy inclusion on the Man Booker Prize Longlist, in my top few? Probably not, but it is still alive and kicking for the Shadow Jury’s main prize so we will know more in the coming weeks.

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Death By Water – Kenzaburō Ōe (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

There have been a couple of posts between my review of Maylis de Kerangal’s “Mend The Living” (translated by Jessica Moore) and this look at Kenzaburō Ōe’s “Death by Water”, however I did read these books back-to-back. Moving from the stilted, awkward style of the French novel to the smooth, eloquence associated with J-Lit. I can assure you the stark contrast was startling.

The title “Death by Water” is taken from a phrase for drowning used by T.S. Eliot in the poem “The Waste Land”
Our novel focuses on the ageing famous writer, Kogito Choko (Kenzaburō Ōe), and opens with his return to the family home, ten years after his mother’s death, at his sister’s request. This reconciliation of family now gives Choko the, long deferred, opportunity to finish his novel that is about his father’s drowning death. As we explore more of this time it is also a reflection by Choko on his family relationships, his childhood memories and his imaginary friend Kogii. When our narrator returns home he meets up with a theatre troupe, the Caveman Group, who is planning to adapt all of his writings for the stage, a devise for the author to discuss his previous works with the theatre group whilst researching his “drowning novel”. The reflection on other works by Ōe are interspersed with interviews with Choko and (of course) the author’s internal musings.
One of the key prompts for Choko’s upcoming novel, apparently his last, is a family heirloom, a “red trunk”, hopefully it contains his family’s history, letters, feedback on his first draft of the ‘drowning man’ novel that he sent to his estranged (now dead) mother and further riches.
When Kogito Choko opens the red trunk his first discovery is three volumes of the English book “The Golden Bough”…later we learn “the myth of the Forest King of Nemi is one of the underlying themes of the whole ‘Golden Bough’, from beginning to end. The archetypal myth about the new king who kills his aged predecessor, thus engendering a renascence of fertility in the world.” Is this a reference to post-war Japan and the rule of Emperor Hirohito? Is this a reference to the passing on of the patriarchal role from Choko senior to Choko junior? Are these anthropological and folkloric principles a metaphor for modern Japanese politics? You’ll have to read this book yourself to find out….
However I jump ahead of myself, very early on in the novel do we learn of our narrator’s (and writer’s) fate, when he states: “what if the novelist himself ended up being sucked into the whirlpool in a single gulp when he was finished telling his story?”
As the inner sleeve explains this is “an interweaving of myth, history and autobiography…a shimmering masterpiece. Reportedly the last novel that Kenzaburō Ōe will ever write, this is an exhilarating ending for the great literary character of Kogito Choko and a deeply personal denouement for one of the world’s most important and influential living authors.”
There are many many layers to this work however for this exercise of reviewing the work I will primarily focus on the character of Kogito Choko as a mirror for Kenzaburō Ōe. For example when reflecting upon a theatrical representation of his work “The Day Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away” (written in 1972, published in English in the collection “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness”) which features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56’, Choko’s sister says
“It’s just that you’re about to embark on what (considering your age) may well turn out to be your final project. I realize your main focus will be on exploring the contents of the red leather trunk, with the help of the Caveman Group, but I can’t help wondering what might happen if some echoes of the ultranationalist German song were to show up in the book you ultimately write.”
This is a subtle, understated novel, blending repetitive tales of Choko’s memories or current day actions with folklore, local spirits, samurai, female warriors and references to Kenzaburō Ōe’s other writings or even Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro”. A ‘letter” in Chapter six, part 5, is very pertinent; although talking about the novel “Kokoro” the reflection of the book we are now reading is almost mirror like, “writing a sort of regretful retrospective was apparently his only means of talking about his own conduct after decades of silence.” Kenzaburō Ōe’s “The Changeling” appearing in 2000 (nine years before “Suishi”, this work, appeared in Japan).

The literary references are so rich I can’t help but quote these wonderful passages;
“In your work to date, you’ve portrayed Father as a grotesquely exaggerated character, almost a cartoon – sometimes ludicrous, sometimes tragic, sometimes a bit heroic – but really, your take on him has been all over the map. In other words, for you, there was no clarity so there can be no absolution or closure, either.”
Therefore, as you are reading this “fiction” the revelations as to an unreliable narrator, the knowledge that you will have no closure is slowly appearing, as a reader you are complicit in the novelist’s journey.
“In my novels, I usually portray characters who exist in very private worlds, but even so, my ultimate goal is to somehow express the spirit of the era I’m writing about. I’m not claiming there’s any special merit in my approach – and, as you’ve so kindly pointed out, my readership has nearly dried up as a result. This may seem like a stretch, but if I should die I can’t help thinking that it would almost be as if I were committing junshi myself: following my own era (and the principles I’ve fought for) into death. I’m speaking metaphorically of course.”
Like a number of Japanese novels I have read, the melancholic, meditative, almost Buddhist contemplation, is prominent in both the style and the content. “Although at the same time they saw something interesting in the slightly retro, nostalgic feeling that infuses so much of his work – what you might call a divergence from the now.”
One of the other prominent characters is Uniako, a thirty-something, determined actress, part of the Caveman Group, she has her own distinctive style which includes a ‘dog-tossing’ model, in the Prologue we are introduced to Rabelais and his work Pantagruel, a tale about rabid dogs. Yes, don’t let any reference, however small, slip through, it may pop up later, however you never know it could be a “McGuffin” (see Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic of Kassel” if you’d like more on McGuffins).
Is this work a Japanese Karl-Ove Knausgaard? Is Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” a Norwegian Kenzaburō Ōe? Am I now just being ridiculous? Maybe I should leave the final word to the author!
“For Mr. Choko, this, probably is a “serious novel,” both in terms of structure and literary style. However, the thing is, over the past ten or fifteen years all of Mr. Choko’s long works of fiction have more or less been cut from the same cloth, most notably in terms of the protagonist (who is often the first-person narrator as well). Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point, doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over the people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?”
So “generally speaking” this style of novel hasn’t won over the judges of the Man Booker International Prize – it not making the shortlist was one of the personal shocks to myself. I may be more inclined to enjoy Japanese novels than the general public, I may also be more inclined towards the male centred, solipsistic, paternalistic works, the first-person ramblings. With that in mind, take my recommendation with a grain of salt, but this is one of the better works on the longlist of thirteen, a subtle work, that creeps into your consciousness, a meditative repetitive piece that works simply as a tale of writer’s block, but also as an allegory for post-war Japan, also as a mystery of a drowning death, also as a cryptic tale of youthful folklore spirits speaking through mature adults, a novel that is both shallow and deep that the same time, a bit like a deep forest (you’ll have to read it to know what that means).

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Man Booker International Prize Official Shortlist 2016

Today, the “official” judges, as opposed to the “shadow” judges, announced the Shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. As previously advised here, the prize has merged with the, now defunct, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is now yearly, now presents an award for a single work (not a body of work) and pretty much follows the rules of the old IFFP (eg. Published in the UK, a living author etc.)
Whittling down a massive list of entries to a longlist of thirteen novels would be a monumental task, refining those thirteen to a shortlist of six would present challenges as well, even if those challenges are just healthy debate about the merits of certain works. So congratulations has to go out to Boyd Tonkin (Chair), Tahmima Anam, David Bellos, Daniel Medin and Ruth Padel for presenting six novels, in translation, to the wider reading public.
Here are the six shortlisted titles (again in alphabetical order by author surname):
Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)
Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)
A simple comparison to the Shadow Jury’s Shortlist (as revealed yesterday) shows only three common works; Elena Ferrante, Han Kang and Yan Lianke. As I mentioned yesterday I rated Robert Seethaler’s “A Whole Life” higher than my fellow Shadow Jury members, so that inclusion is not a surprise to me, however there are a couple of points I would like to make about their official listing;
Personally I found “A General Theory of Oblivion” to read like a film script (which it was originally intended to be), with multiple “bit” characters and way too may coincidental happenings for my liking. If the inclusion of a work from Africa was part of their intention personally “Tram 83” rates a lot higher on my scale.
Female representation, as we know women in translation are underrepresented, however to work to a “quota” of 33% (to reflect publishing rates) is surely something the official judges have not done!!! Or have they??? To have two books of the six by women writers smacks of tokenism, Marie NDiaye’s “Ladivine” is a wonderful work (I will review it soon trust me), and personally it rates much higher than a number of books that have made the shortlist.
Of course the Shadow Jury will speak, naming our “unofficial” winner just prior to the official winner on 16 May, simple maths says we’re only an 11% chance of agreeing (with 9 works on the combined lists there is a one in 9 chance of us being on the same page), unlike 2015 where we all had Jenny Erpenbeck’s “The End Of Days” (translated by Susan Bernofsky) as the winner I’m thinking it will be more like 2014 where the Shadow Jury had “The Sorrow of Angels” by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press)  as the winner and the Official Jury hadn’t even included it on their shortlist.

You’ll have to stay tuned to see what transpires!

Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury Shortlist 2016

Tomorrow the official judges of the Man Booker International Prize will announce their shortlist of six novels from the original thirteen longlisted on 10 March 2016.
The official longlist was selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Boyd Tonkin, senior writer on The Independent, and consisting of: anthropologist and novelist Tahmima Anam; academic David Bellos, Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University; editor and academic Daniel Medin, who holds a comparative literature professorship at the American University of Paris (AUP); and prize-winning British poet and author Ruth Padel.
The Shadow Judges were happy to agree with the longlist of thirteen titles and after much reading, debating, scoring and musing we are ready to pre-empt the official Judges and today announce our shortlist of six titles.
The Shadow Jury consisted of eight bloggers, Stu from “Winstonsdad Blog”, Tony from “Tony’s Reading List”, Clare from “A Little Blog Of Books”, Lori a freelance book critic, Bellezza from “Dolce Bellezza”, David from “David’s Book World”, Grant from “1streading” and myself. Further information including twitter handles, links to blogs, background information and more regarding the Shadow Judges can be found here.
Without further ado here is the Shadow Jury’s shortlist for 2016 (in author surname alphabetical order)….
  • Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)
  • Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)
  • Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)
  • Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)
  • Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)
  • Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

Special mention goes to “Tram 83” by Fiston Mwanza Mujila from the Democratic Republic of Congo and translator Roland Glasser, as this work missed out on making the final six by a smidgin.
Whilst I do not speak on behalf of all of the Shadow Jury members I am sure they would be happy with my view that the we acknowledge the 2016 list as being a very strong representation of translated works and the quality of the books made the selection of a final shortlist quite difficult, many of the works that have missed out would not be out of place on the official list and if they happened to be published in a prior year I am pretty confident they would feature prominently in final discussions.
Personally I can assure you that I have read all six of the works on the shortlist (plus a further five from the longlist) and although I am yet to publish reviews here for the Ferrante, NDiaye and Oe novels these will be forthcoming in the next week or so (unfortunately I have been that busy outside of the “literature” world that something had to give, and that was the writing and publishing of reviews).
As my review of Maylis de Kerangal’s “Mend The Living” pointedly portrayed, this was not one of my favourite books from the longlist, however the other Jury members have rated the work higher than myself and being one of eight judges my lower view did not unfairly impact the final rankings. Needless to say I won’t be cheering for it as the “winner” of the official or Shadow Jury prizes. Having said that, there are other Jury members who did not agree with my higher rankings on some of the other works, so as a panel we are at least balanced in our views!
I would like to also point out that the Shadow Jury has four shortlisted titles by female writers, in fact the four that were on the longlist have all graduated to the shortlist.
For interest sake my personal final six did not include “Mend The Living” or “The Story of the Lost Child” (you’ll have to wait for my review to understand why), having “Tram 83” and “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins) on the list instead.
We await the official judges views with interest and I will post their official shortlist here soon after the announcement.
  

Mend The Living – Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

Today you’re going to come across something that happens very infrequently on this blog, a review of a book that I struggled to finish. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t like and more often than not I simply don’t review it. There are a number of reasons for this approach;

  • A writer has spent a significant amount of their life on bringing this work into being,
  • For the majority of books I read there is also the translator’s efforts to be taken into account, like the author they have dedicated a substantial amount of their time bringing this work to an English speaking audience,
  • Who am I to judge the relative merits of a book? What I may despise others may love! I’m a casual reader, not formally educated in “fine literature”, not officially qualified to be a stick in the mud, why does my opinion even matter? Then again, why would it matter for books I love too?
  • What value is there in caning a book? My insignificant view on the world stage will possibly impact the purchasing power by one or two copies.

As a Shadow Jury member for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize I am attempting to read and review all thirteen longlisted novels, and if I am being honest there is no way around giving my opinion on each of the books on the list.
Onto Maylis De Kerangal’s “Mend The Living”, a book that, although clunky in language style, actually starts out as an engaging and potentially compelling piece. The story opens with three mates, waking very early, unlike their usual teenage behaviour, so they can fulfil their insatiable surfing addiction. Amongst the three is Simon Limbeau, soon to be deceased.
It’s time. Beginning of the day when the shapeless takes shape: the elements gather, the sky separates from the sea, the horizon grows clear. The three boys get ready, methodical, following a precise order that is still a ritual: they wax their boards, check the leashes are attached, slip into thermal rash guards before pulling on their suits, contorting themselves in the parking lot – neoprene adheres to the skin, scrapes and even burns it sometimes – choreography of rubber puppets who ask each other for help, requiring that they touch and manipulate each other; and then the surf boots, the hood, the gloves, and they close the van. They walk down toward the ocean, surfboard under one arm, light, cross the beach in long strides, the beach where pebbles crash beneath their feet in an infernal racket, and once they’ve arrived at water’s edge, while everything grows clear before them, the chaos and the party, they each wrap a leash around an ankle, adjust their hoods, reduce the space of bare skin around their necks to nothing by grabbing the cords at their backs and pulling them up to the last notch of the zipper – it’s a matter of ensuring the best possible degree of waterproofness for their teenage-boy skin, skin that’s often studded with acne on the upper back, on the shoulder blades, where Simon Limbeau sports a Maori tattoo as a pauldron – and this movement, arm extended sharply, signifies that the session is starting, let’s go! And maybe now, hearts get worked up, maybe they shake themselves inside thoracic cages, maybe their mass and their volume augment and their kick intensifies, two distinct sequences in one same pulsing, two beats, always the same: terror and desire.
I’m not giving anything away by explaining that Simon dies soon after the novel commences, as a novel exploring the merits, pitfalls of organ transplants would require a character to die in order for their organs to be harvested.
Early on in the book, the post-accident helplessness, the grief of family members, the detachment of the hospital staff, is wonderfully rich and I was trusting that this theme would continue throughout:
She heads for the main door that opens slowly, far off; four figures cross the threshold and come toward her, figures that soon emerge from the blur cast by her myopic eyes: it’s the parents of the other two caballeros, Christophe and Johan, the four of them in a line, and again the winter coats that weigh shoulders down, the scarves rolled into neck braces to hold up falling heads, the gloves. They recognise her, slow down, and then one of the men quickens his step to break rank and when he reaches Marianne folds her in his arms, and then the other three hug her in turn. How is she? Chris’s father is the first to speak; the four of them look at her, she’s paralysed. Murmurs: he’s in a coma, we don’t know yet. She shrugs her shoulders and her mouth distorts: and you? the boys? Johan’s mother answers: Chris, fractured left hip and fibula; Johan, both wrists and clavicle fractured, also his ribcage, but none of his organs were pierced – she remains sober, of an outrageous sobriety, meant to show Marianne that the four of them are aware of how lucky they are, of their monster’s ball, because for them, it’s only breakage – their children were wearing seat belts, were protected from the shock, and if this woman minimises their anxiety to this extent, abstaining from any commentary, it’s also to show Marianne that they know about Simon, know that it’s serious, very serious even, a rumour that will have run from the I.CU. to the department of orthopaedic and trauma surgery where their sons are, and that she won’t have the indecency to add anything, and finally, there is this distress she feels, this guilt that holds her back, because the choice was between their two sons, for the seat belt – Chris had to drive, so it could just as easily have been Johan in the middle and then she would be the one in Marianne’s place at this instant, exactly in her place, swaying before the same terrible abyss, disfigured in just the same way, and she’s suddenly dizzy at the thought, her legs go weak and her eyes begin to roll back, and her husband moves closer, feeling her wavering, puts an arm under hers to steady her, and as Marianne sees this woman capsize, she, too, perceives the abyss between them, between herself and the rest of them, this chasm that separates them now, thank you, I have to go, we’ll keep you posted.
We have the same incident viewed though many lenses, as the characters begin to pile up, we have competing priorities, differing emotional reactions, different time pressures, then the self-interest starts to boil to the surface, as a reader who do we emotionally attach ourselves to? The mother, the father, the nurse, the surgeon….?
Sean and Marianne sit side by side on the couch, awkward, curious even though they’re shattered, and, on one of the vermilion chairs Thomas Remige sits down too, with Simon Limbeau’s medical folder in his hands. But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs. On one side: a man and a woman caught in a wave of shock, at once swept off the ground and crashed down into a dislocated timeline – a continuity that Simon’s death had ruptured, but a continuity that, like a headless duck running in a farmyard, continued on – total madness – a timeline woven of pain, a man and a woman gathering all the sorrow of the world upon their two heads, and on the other side: this young man in a white lab coat – committed and cautious, prepared to conduct the meeting without skipping any steps, but who has set a timer in a corner of his brain, conscious that once brain death occurs, the body deteriorates rapidly, and that this has to be done quickly – caught in the same torsion.
However the further we get into the book, the more distracting the clunky language becomes, it is not only the melding of tenses, nor the rambling sentences, or the ridiculous word usage (more on that soon), but to me the never ending introduction of yet another bit player just became ridiculous, and adding some “fat” to their character was totally uncalled for (why have page after page describing France vs Italy in a soccer match? Oh that becomes slightly relevant once a new Italian surgeon is introduced, however Italy has NEVER beaten France 1-0 in Paris, and if you are going to have a fictitious football match then don’t name real players. Why a whole chapter dedicated to the purchase of a goldfinch? Is that just so there can be a corny reference to the rarity of its song? Why an imbalanced fiery actress lover? More pages? Who cares about the hovering nurse’s night before with an oft missing lover? More filler material?)
To explain the use of language, or more specifically word choice, here is a short quote about a (yet another) bit player who doesn’t not want to have dinner with her daughter:
…or maybe it’s the couple that frightens her, this couple that, in less than two years, has swallowed up her only daughter, disintegrated her into a sure, emollient conjugality, a balm after years of solitary nomadism: her spirited, polyglot daughter has become completely unrecognisable.
?????? And we have 100’s of examples of similar word choices throughout, not at all endearing, nor does this make for an enjoyable read when you need to stop each paragraph and decipher a word or two.
Here’s another example, this time, of unnecessary words, with the page references so you can see how often they are repeated (and I can assure you this is not an isolated example):
P 138 – One liver, two lungs, two kidneys. And a heart.
P 139 – Marthe Carrare enters all the medical data for Simon Limbeau’s heart, lungs, liver and kidneys into a web interface
P 142 – Responses for the liver, the kidney and the lungs come one after the other.
Given the majority of the story is given over to the “heart” wouldn’t “the other organs” suffice for “the liver, the kidney and the lungs”, given we then have a detailed explanation of who is going to receive each organ, further along page 142?
A book that has an interesting premise, this doesn’t lift beyond a poorly scripted version of an American television drama, with minor, irrelevant characters, clunky language, ridiculous word choices (wait until you get to the technical “harvesting” sections) and non-closure for so many of the “featured” players, this is an absolute mish-mash.
Sadly I was intrigued for about 70-80 pages and pushed through the language idiosyncrasies, I shouldn’t have bothered. One that left me completely flat, needless to say it won’t be featuring on my shortlist.

POSTSCRIPT – The Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, explains De Kerangal’s use of obscure words, she also explains the hidden references in the character’s names or the struggle with French language words having multiple meanings and not as easily translatable into similar English words. Whilst an insight into the struggle of the translator it doesn’t really change my mind as to the struggle I went through to finish this book. For people who have read this book, you may be interested in where I hit the wall, it was once Marthe Carrare the “short woman, around sixty, olive-skinned and round, auburn hair, voluminous breasts and abdomen stuffed inside a tight camel-coloured cardigan, spherical buttocks bobbing in brown wool trousers, and then a pair of rather skinny legs and tiny feet bulging inside flat loafers”, was introduced.

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The Four Books – Yan Lianke (translated by Carlos Rojas) – Man Booker International Prize 2016 & Best Translated Book Award 2016

The 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (a now defunct award that has morphed into the newly launched Man Booker International Prize) shortlist contained Yan Lianke’s “The Dream of Ding Village” (translated by Cindy Carter), a novel that explored the trade in human blood and the subsequent AIDS crisis in China. After the first edition (in Chinese) sold out the novel was banned and is apparently still unavailable in China.
Yan Lianke’s latest novel “The Four Books” (translated by Carlos Rojas) is another controversial work in Yan Lianke’s homeland, as any novel exploring the Mao Zedong’s economic and social campaign, “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961), would. Instead of myself paraphrasing Carols Rojas’ excellent introduction, or attempting to come up with a short precis explaining this complex book, I think it is best to quote Yan Lianke himself, in a recent interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website, he answers the question; “Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The Four Books?”

The Four Books uses language borrowed from the Chinese translation of the Bible to tell the story of a mysterious Child whose age and origins are left unspecified. This Child uses a set of magical methods to oversee a community of Chinese intellectuals who have been assigned to a settlement on the banks of the Yellow River, where they are subjected to compulsory political ‘re-education’. The narrative spans China’s notorious Great Steel-Smelting campaign and Great Leap Forward, during which people were required to meet impossible production quotas, such as having to harvest several ten thousand jin of grain for every mu of farmland. The excesses of the Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, in which the thousands of intellectuals in the novel’s Re-education settlement—including characters referred to simply as the Author, the Professor, the Musician, the Theologian, and so forth—almost die of starvation, only to be saved by the Christ-like figure of the Child. For me, the heart of the novel lies not in its descriptions of the hardships undergone by the intellectuals, but rather in its use of an innovative narrative style, which I call ‘mythorealism’. In this way, the novel attempts to offer a new perspective on Chinese history and contemporary reality, together with a set of unique challenges faced by Chinese intellectuals.
The four books are the alternative voices used throughout this novel, “The Old Course”, a novel or view of proceedings as observed by the character The Author, “Criminal Records”, observations and reports made to The Child by The Author, “Heaven’s Child” a third person biblical style narration & “A New Myth of Sisyphus” a short section at the conclusion of the novel. As Carlos Rojas points out;
“…one of the challenges in translating The Four Books involved trying to preserve the shifts in linguistic register between the four fictional ‘books’ that make up the novel. The novel’s narrative moves back and forth between these four distinct fictional texts, each of which was composed for disparate objectives and offers differing perspectives on the historical period in question.”
As we can see from these two interviews, there is an alignment to the Four Books of the Gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and further interpretation can also show Confucian references to the “Four Books”, ‘Great Learning’, ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, ‘Analects”, and ‘Mencius’, the texts illustrating the core value system and beliefs in Confucianism. Theologically there are many levels that could be explored here, not simply “the four books” but the links between the disciples/authors, evangelistic symbolism, alignment of the Child and Author “books” to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (similar tales retold throughout the New Testament) as opposed to the final “book”, “A New Myth of Sisyphus”, as told by The Scholar, and its alignment to the Gospel of John. Deeper analysis could reveal a raft of parallels, however the pressing task of getting though the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize means I’ll have to defer such until a later time.
Aside from the religious alignment, as an allegorical tale this is a wonderfully rich political expose on a tragic period of turmoil in China’s political history, with our characters being un-named (The Child, The Author, The Scholar, The Technician, The Musician, and The Theologian are main examples) all deeply involved, firstly, in the failed attempt to move China from an agrarian economy to a rapidly industrialised economy; to take on the might of England and the USA. Initially this is through the production of food, later the production of steel and then later, the subsequent resultant famine and further reliance on food production (with estimates ranging from 18 to 46 million famine related deaths, this period in China’s history was quite probably the deadliest famine in human history). As The Scholar tells us;
“The world has been turned upside down by this steel smelting, and this has happened on a nationwide scale. It took the strength of the whole nation. In the process of smelting steel, people have chopped down all the trees in all of the mountains, along the rivers, and in all of the villages. There is nowhere that trees have been chopped down that has not suffered either flooding or drought, there is not one that has not subsequently suffered from famine. Everyone receives two liang of grain a day, but by winter it is quite possible that we won’t even receive that much. No one cares any longer whether we live or die. Everyone received to liang of grain a day, and it is up to them to figure out how to eat.”
A running theme throughout is the increasing production targets, whether they be for steel, or food, the frustration at these targets being ridiculously increased and rewarded with red blossoms, or pentagonal stars, with longer term “re-education” rewards of family visits over the Lunar New Year or even release forcing the intellectuals in the 99th (the setting of the novel) to reassess their own beliefs.
With vivid allegorical tales or fables, parables even?, such as growing massive wheat by using human blood as a nutrient, this work leaves no horror unexplored as this period in China’s history is put to the pen. With violence, sexual abuse, even cannibalism all detailed, this is not an easy novel to read, however it is an important one. From the opening pages where we learn of one of our narrator’s fate, The Author, assigned as a political prisoner to the ninety-ninth division in a Re-Ed colony.
The ninety-ninth was located in the central plains region about forty kilometres south of the Yellow River. This stretch of terrain was full of silt that the Yellow River had left behind after repeatedly changing course. Because the Yellow River had flooded over the course of millennia, the quality of the soil was very poor. Most of the peasants had already moved away, leaving only sand, wild grass, and an endless expanse of wasteland interspersed with a handful of villages. This was a perfect place to build prisons to house criminals. From the Ming Dynasty to the post-Liberation period, prisons had flourished here. The number of prisoners peaked at thirty-five thousand, including those sentenced to death as well as others sentenced to labor reform. The primary labor involved reinforcing the embankments along the Yellow River – dredging mud out of the old riverbed, then taking the upper layer of yellow silt and burying it beneath the mud. In this way, it was possible to transform barren wasteland into fertile soil. Reclaiming these thousands of mu of sandy terrain was the work of political criminals engaging in labor reform, planting grain and cotton. Several years after the founding of the People’s Republic, this ceased to be a labor reform colony, and instead became the Re-Ed region.

This novel works on so many levels, whether it is the vivid language, the changing voices, the allegories, the parables, the historical significance, the political edginess or simply an engaging read. It is one of the standout novels of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Longlist to date, the combinations will surely propel this work further along the success trail, and will surely be discussed by judges of numerous awards. Put simply – one to hunt down.

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