Compass – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.

Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;

“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.

A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.

I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)

Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.

You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)

This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.

We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)

Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog  personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);

It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)

The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.

This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.

Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)



Judas – Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Today I am looking at the latest translated work from Israeli writer Amos Oz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, a writer who is habitually highlighted when the Nobel Prize in Literature is discussed, award winner galore and an advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For myself “Judas” is one of the more learned works on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, whilst narratively a simple tale, this is a book full of theological, political and character contemplations.

Our novel contains four main characters, Shmuel Ash, Atalia, Gershom Wald and Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel. Our protagonist is Shmuel Ash;

Shmuel was a stocky, bearded young man of around twenty-five, she, emotional, socialist, asthmatic, liable to veer from wild enthusiasm to disappointment and back again, His shoulders were broad, his neck was short and thick, and his fingers too were thick and short, as if they each lacked a knuckle. From every pore of Shmuel Ash’s face and neck curled wiry hairs like steel wool: this beard continued upwards till it merged with the tousled hair of his head and downwards to the curling thicket of his chest. From a distance he always seemed, summer and winter alike, to be agitated and pouring with sweat. But, close up, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that instead of a sour smell of sweat his skin somehow exuded a delicate odour of talcum powder. He would be instantly intoxicated by new ideas, provided they were wittily dressed up and involved in some paradox. But he also tended to tire quickly, possibly on account of and enlarged heart and his asthma. (p2)

Shmuel’s father is involved in an unsuccessful business deal, is declared bankrupt and can no longer support his son through University, Shmuel decides to cease his studies and seeks employment as a companion to an old man on the outskirts of the city;

An old fig tree and an arbour of vines shaded the courtyard. So dense and intertwined were their branches that even now, their leaves shed, only a handful of capering gold coins managed to filter through the canopy and flicker on the flagstones. It seemed not so much a stone courtyard as a secret pool, its surface ruffled by myriad rippling wavelets. (p13)

Shmuel is employed to provide conversation each evening with Gershom Wald

Beyond this ring of warm light, between two metal trolleys laden with books, files, folders and notebooks, an elderly man sat talking on the telephone. A plaid was draped round his shoulders like a prayer shawl. He was an ugly man, broad, corked and hunchbacked. His nose was as sharp as the beak of a thirsty bird, and the curve of his chin suggested a sickle. His fine, almost feminine, grey hair cascaded down the back of his head and covered the nape of his neck. His eyes were deep-set beneath thick craggy white eyebrows that looked like woolly frost. His bushy Einstein moustache was a mound of snow. Without interrupting his telephone call, he eyed his visitor with a penetrating, quizzical glance. His sharp chin was inclined towards his left shoulder. His left eye was screwed up while the right one was open wide, round, blue and unnaturally large. The man’s face wore a sly, amused expression as if he were winking or making a sarcastic denunciation: he seemed instantly to have understood the young man before him, as if reading his mind and understanding what he was after. A moment later he switched off the searchlight beam of his gaze, acknowledged the visitor’s presence with a nod of the head and looked away, continuing his telephonic debate all the while: (p16)

Shmuel’s “employer” is Gershom’s daughter in law, Atalia a mysterious widow, alluring to Shmeul but completely indifferent to his approaches.

The final player is Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel, removed from the machinations of the official parties for his political views on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…a Judas;

‘Are you trying to tell me that your father seriously believed that we had so much as a shadow of a chance to survive here by peaceful means? That it was possible to convince the Arabs to agree to share the land? That it is possible to obtain a homeland by means of fine words? And do you believe that too? At that time the entire progressive world supported the creation of a state for the Jewish people. Even the Communist Bloc supplied us with arms.’ (p166)

However, it is not through the simple plot here that the riches of this work are harvested, it is through the nightly discussions between Shmuel and Gershom, the writings and research of Shmuel as part of his abandoned thesis ‘The Jewish Views of Jesus’, and the debates about Judas, and his parallel Shealtiel where the heart of the novel lies.

And yet, had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity. (p73)

A work that immediately brought to mind Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, through the development of the central character of Shmuel, for me another wonderfully rich character on the world literary stage.

Alone in his attic on a winter’s night, with strong, steady rain falling on the sloping roof close to his head and gurgling in the gutters, the cypresses bowed by the westerly wind, a night bird uttering a single harsh screech, Schmuel sat bent over his papers, taking an occasional swig from the open bottle of cheap vodka that stood before him on the desk, and wrote in his notebook: (p172)

It is through the discussions and theological musings where the depth in this work is apparent, throughout there are explanations of Judas’ role in the biblical tales, the mythology surrounding the thirty pieces of silver, the crucifixion of Jesus, the final words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” and Judas’ subsequent suicide. In this novel these explanations come via the hand of Shmuel, but they are presented in simple enough terms for non-Christians, or Jews, to understand the parallels that are contained with other events within the novel.

Through Shmuel’s employment there is plenty of discourse and opportunity to allow for details about the 1948 War of Independence and the lead up and subsequent events, with numerous threads explored, no definitive view is portrayed.

This is a novel that addresses centuries old theological issues, alongside current political concerns about the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as confronting the question of being a traitor vs an idealistic true believer. A complex and thought provoking work, one I rate highly in my 2017 Man Booker International Prize rankings.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I would hope so, although the simple narrative may detract some readers/judges, but this is not a novel to simply keep you entertained, it is a thought provoking, complex work. Amos Oz’s history of awards certainly plays in his favour, and his shortlisting for the Prize in 2007 (when the award was given for a body of work, not a single book) could be both a positive and a negative (he lost out to Chinua Achebe from Nigeria).

Highly ranked by myself I think this is one of the under ranked dark horses for the main gong…

Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Today a short review for a short book.

By far the shortest book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist is “Fever Dream” from Argentine Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). But what this work may lack in length is more than made up for in tension, heightened blood pressure and breathlessness.

A book that can be read in one sitting, you find yourself pitched immediately into a conversation between Amanda and David. Amanda is the mother of a young daughter Nina, and in hospital apparently shortly to die, David is the mysterious son of a recent acquaintance Carla, he himself being poisoned in the not too distant past, the only “cure”? Having his body’s spirit removed;

There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit back to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other. He wouldn’t be the same anymore, and I would have to be willing to accept his new being. (pg 29-30)

This bedside conversation consists of David eliciting information from Amanda, where she tells of meeting David’s mother whilst staying in a country holiday home, in a region where soy bean production and horse breeding is prominent. David appears as the inquisitor, with short sharp questions, with Amanda giving details, sometimes too many details for David’s liking….”that doesn’t matter”…

A story where conversations happen within the conversation, where the underlying theme of keeping our children close is relayed through a theory of “rescue distance”, an invisible taut rope between mother and child;

My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things. (p75-76)

A story told in short clipped sentences, conversational in tone rather than written, the title alluding to a fever, a dream, and the danger is always on the periphery, each page with a shimmering dream like danger, you know something horrific is coming…

And I’m starting to think you’re not going to understand, that going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense. (p 140)

A disturbing tale that drags on your tension throughout, this work is completely different to any other book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, unique in style, presentation, genre and subplot.

With an underlying environmental message, where we are putting our own children at risk at the expense of progress, the hallucinatory story is difficult to present without giving away too many details of the tension.

A novella from South America, where I have spent quite some time in my literary journeys in the last twelve months, I would rate this amongst my favourites from the region. Translated by Megan McDowell, who has also translated two Alejandro Zambra books (“Multiple Choice” and “My Documents”) as well as Lina Meruane’s “Seeing Red”, these three titles I have reviewed here within the last year.  She also translated Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, which I have read and will review on the blog shortly. When Women In Translation month comes around in August “Fever Dream” is one book you should be adding to your reading piles.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Most definitely, this is a unique work, one that you complete quickly but immediately are drawn to a rereading. This book is totally unlike many literary works that contain dreamlike sequences where the symbolism is too obvious. Surely a book that will make the shortlist which is to be announced later this week.


Fish Have No Feet – Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Before the Man Booker International Prize became an award for a single book, there was the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I have been a member of that Shadow Jury since 2014, the year for firsts, when the Shadow Jury announced Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s “The Sorrow of Angels” as their “winner” of the award, a book that had not made the official shortlist!!

My review of that book can be found here in part reading:

 “The Sorrow of Angels” is Jon Kalman Stefansson’s second work in a trilogy, following on from “Heaven and Hell” and is a simple tale of “the boy” following Jens the postman on a journey to deliver the mail, they are “on their way to a place that constantly seems to be retreating.” Jens “flourishes nowhere but far from human habitation; far from life, in fact”, a man who broods and prefers silence. “The boy” lives in the world of words, poetry and the power of speech, “a person who holds a pen and paper has the possibility to change the world”.

‘The Sorrow of Angels’ is simply angels tears which manifest as snow, snow storms, blizzards, purity, treacherous ravines, glaciers, iced tracks, cold, raging icy seas and more, and besides the boy and the postman the other main character here is the snow…the sorrow of the angels. This is a beautiful book, as delicate as a snowflake but also as treacherous, it contains the mysteries of humankind. Up numerous mountains, their journey is an arduous one. Am I right in assuming this is an Icelandic “Purgatorio” (Dante’s second work in “The Divine Comedy”)? Our two characters are travelling through the seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth? The work does have the purgatory feel, where our characters are neither in hell nor heaven, the chorus is the dead, they are led by ghosts but to their safety?

At 300 pages plus a journey of two characters up mountains and through constant snow storms, on the surface seems like an arduous journey for the reader. There are fleeting visits to outposts, where people have shackled down for the winter, and the breaks in their journey to defrost and drink coffee (and occasionally talk of poetry, for the boy that is) are the parts where their deeper human qualities are slowly peeled back. But as soon as you’ve settled into a small, warm shack in the wilds of Iceland you’re picked up and hauled out into the raging snowstorms once again, as Jens continues his long journey to deliver the mail.

Given my enjoyment of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s earlier work I was very much looking forward to his latest book to be translated into English, “Fish Have No Feet”. Could it take out the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, giving recognition to the Icelandic writer?

The novel opens with a prelude, with ruminations on death, immediately you know that this is going to be a profound work.

Set in the fishing town of Keflavik, it cuts across three generations, moving from a bustling village reliant on fishing to the present day where the fishing quota has been removed from the town and therefore the people now live on the “quota-less sea”.

There’s the sea, so it’s that big?, before drawing the curtains, for who wants to have something that vast reminding them of better days, days of activity, when it was easy to walk tall, reminding them of having consented in silence to the sea’s fish stocks being converted into the bank accounts of fishing moguls and their descendants, to the gaping cod, the gleaming herring, becoming their blood, to the sea being privatised – we draw the curtains quick as a flash because it’s tough to have a sea teeming with fish right there before our eyes but to be prevented from fishing, to have a fish-processing company but nothing to process. (p22)
The main present day characters are Ari, who has for inexplicable reasons left his wife of twenty years and his children, and an unknown narrator, are they nephews? “A book of poems written by an unruly aunt of mine and Ari’s” (p68), or are they not related at all, Ari is “shy around his cousins, who are sitting on the bed and two chairs; he hardly knows them” (p158)? For me this mystical narrator (is he/she a ghost, an angel, a relation?) was very distracting. For scenes to be detailed about Ari in certain circumstances, for example, when he is alone in a hotel room, the impossible, strange, unreal feeling felt awkward. Although the narrator does detail Ari’s character though numerous means, analysing his contacts in his mobile phone…

Absurd? Dubious? Yes, and probably totally unhealthy to have your phone full of dead people’s numbers, numbers that only the past can answer, suggesting that a person who does so has unsolved psychological issues, refuses to face up to reality, doesn’t dare to, is an out-and-out escapee from life, a denier of the laws of nature; such things never end well. (p68)

A novel that attempts to address the “metaphysical”, what is life, death, lover etc. a book that contains a lot of questions, but do they make a satisfying meal? Examples of the plethora of rhetoric and existentialist questions;

Where does guilt come from? (p91)

Regret is the heaviest stone (p86)

Why have I lived? (p107)

Life is one chance, we get one chance to be happy, how can we make the most of it? (p222)

Some of the ruminations on life’s dissatisfaction are long winded and repetitive, I can almost see Jón Kalman Stefánsson sitting at his keyboard, drunk with melancholy, spreading his own dissatisfactions onto the page and then melding it with fiction.

As readers of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s other books will know, he is big on weather imagery, snow drifts, winds, storms, being buried in snow, the language and style match this obsession…”because the weather has done so much to shape life in Iceland for more than one thousand years.”

The references to Iceland are interesting with subjects such as US airbases, the economy and politics sprinkled throughout, but are these enough to hold a rambling existentialist question mark together?

Like Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s favoured snowdrifts, this book can be seen as deep, it is unrelenting, it is harsh, but as we know when a large snow drift melts it leaves but just a puddle….

One of my least favoured works on the longlist, I know I am a bit of a lone voice here, although it does have a powerful ending, the impact, for me, was significantly reduced by the late development of the narrative that leads there, the character being a mere sketch and the coincidental nature of the discovery all make this a flawed tale. Overall a very disappointing journey.

Can it win the Man Booker International Prize? Some readers will champion this work, personally I think it is scattered and flawed with an unconvincing narrator and way too many unresolved threads. It reads as an opening book of a larger work, however I can assure you I won’t be joining in any further journeys…I’d be shocked if it did win the award, but nothing surprises me when it comes to literary prizes.



Swallowing Mercury – Wioletta Greg (translated by Eliza Marciniak) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


I started my 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist reading journey with the bleak “fairy tale” about the sex industry in Germany, Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” and a lot further along in my reading travels for the prize I have come across another fable, Wioletta Greg’s “Swallowing Mercury”.

Originally titled “Unripe Fruit”, in the Polish version, this is a short, sharp, dark fable, dreamlike in its presentation, with poetic sentences, this is an hallucinatory dark and grim coming of age story.

She brought me home in February. Still bleeding after childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my wrist to ward off evil spells and fell asleep for a few hours. It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back. (p2)

A very short book, running to only 146 pages, this is Wiola’s story, told in twenty-three short vignettes. We learn about her father the taxidermist, her black cat, local fables and old-wives tales, along with details of her match box label collection, all set during the era of Poland transitioning from communism to democracy.

In May 1984, I set out for church carrying a bundle of sweet flag, which I had picked that morning by the pond and adorned with ribbons. Water dripped from the bouquet onto my Sunday shoes. The church was filled with the smell of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog. My head started to spin. When the parish priest began to read a passage about the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the boat-shaped pulpit sailed off with him into the unknown. I slid from the bench down to the floor. They carried me outside. A woman drew a cross on my forehead with her spit. (p45)

We have memorable historical events, like Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland, the preparations (and division) within the community, told through the innocent, honest eyes of youth. Wiola connected to the natural world, an internalising youth, exploring bogs, swamps and the flora and fauna, observing her immediate family with a wry honest eye.

Then I sat at the table which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread. (p 19)

The language creating a vivid scene containing the small village sounds and smells, expertly taking the reader to 1980’s rural Poland. It is no surprise to learn that author Wioletta Greg has previously published six volumes of poetry, with her collection “Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance” being shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, a Canadian Prize with a $65,000 first prize (with $10,000 for each shortlisted poet), it is self-proclaimed as the “world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English”, and gives two prizes, one for living poet residing in Canada and an international prize. Although the Griffin Poetry Prize website says “a…collection of poetry written in English” Wioletta Greg’s work was one of two translated works on the shortlist of four, it was translated by Marek Kazmierski, and lost out to Michael Longley’s “The Stairwell”.

The book is resplendent with the sounds, sights and smells of rural Poland; “After the rain, the air smelled of watermelon pulp.” (p 70)

This is a highly readable and enjoyable work, and given my past dislike of coming-of-age stories it has managed to jump a significant subconscious bias with my reading. A welcome inclusion on the 2017 longlist, this is a book that I would like to see travel at least to the shortlist.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? The brevity may go against it when it comes to the main gong, however it is a very assured work, a folk tale that subtly presents the political changes in Poland through messages on match box labels, or innocent views of a town preparing for the Pope’s visit. I think the darkness will not appeal to all audiences and therefore think a shortlisting is probably as far as it will travel, but it is a book I urge people to explore, one to add to your “Women in Translation” reading lists, you will not be disappointed.



The Unseen – Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Isolation, seclusion, subjects that have always interested me in literature. The vast plains, deserts, remote farmlands, mountain sides, all wonderful settings for introspection and self-discovery and now we have Roy Jacobsen adding to the locations choosing a single island, Barrøy (named after the family that lives there), from an archipelago of ten thousand.

“The Unseen” is a simple tale, a family story set on remote islands off the coast of Norway, and with slow contemplative language the feelings of isolation, of being cut off, slowly come to the fore. Even when discussing rubbish washed up on the shore, the introspection of a single remote family is the central subject;

On rare occasions they find a message in a bottle, a mixture of longing and personal confidences intended for others than the finders, but which, if they were to have reached the intended recipient, would have caused them to weep tears of blood and move all heaven and earth. Now, in all their indifference, the islanders open the bottles, pick out the letters and read them, if they understand the language they are written in, that is, and reflect on their contents, superficial, vague reflections – messages in bottles are mythical vehicles of yearning, hope and unfulfilled lives – and then they put the letters in a chest reserved for objects which can neither be possessed nor discarded, and boil the bottles and fill them with redcurrant juice, or else simply place them on the windowsill in the barn as a kind of proof of their own emptiness, leaving the sunbeams to shine through them and turn green before refracting downwards and settling in the dry straw littering the floor. (p19)

This novel has a deep personal connection, exploring the lives of the isolated family, their plans, dreams, battles. Three generations living in a home built, and renovated to accommodate the current size, one not sitting at the dinner table simply because there are insufficient chairs, their daily lives consist of planning to improve their island living conditions, and income so they can improve the quay, therefore connecting them, in some way, to the mainland. A work that shows a deep link to the environment;

It is a little under a kilometre from north to south, and half a kilometre from east to west, it has lots of crags and small grassy hollows and dells, deep coves cut into its coast and there are long rugged headlands and three white beaches. And even though on a normal day they can stand in the yard and keep an eye on the sheep, they are not so easy to spot when they are lying down in the long grass, the same goes for people, even and island has its secrets. (p77)

Although the islanders accept visitors, the local priest, fishermen, family from other islands, into their idyllic world, a stranger arrives by row boat, invading their paradise. “Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.” (p138) The pervading sense of their idyll being shattered, the children needing to head to the mainland to attend school, the family battling the economic downturn and having to seek employment are all subjects bubbling along the periphery.

A novel that is made up of fifty-three short chapters, it is meticulous in construction, we even have a chapter on ‘silence’, the rarity and meaning of silence… “But silence on an island is nothing. No-one talks about it, no-one remembers it or gives it a name, however deep an impression it makes. It is the tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.” (p103)

Progress, and financial realities, come to this remote part of Norway, with the family asking if their island can be included in the “milk run” where a boat stops by to pick up milk every few days, for a family used to isolation and introspection this is a major shift in their lives, however they must attend meetings on the mainland and there they hit bureaucracy and corruption;

Maria notices that no coffee is served, and that has nothing to do with the budget, and the conversation treads water for a while until it suddenly acquires a philosophical dimension, the admin officer remembers that for years Hans Barrøy has sabotaged the civilised world’s need for a seamark, a lamp or a beacon that ships can use to navigate, on Barrøy or one of its close-lying islets or skerries, after all his property lies right in the middle of the fairway, or more precisely, on its seaward side.

Hans askes what this has to do with his case and is told that the admin officer has had an idea, perhaps they can strike an informal deal, you see, his son works for the Lighthouse Authorities, so what about three calls a week on the milk route in exchange for them being allowed to set up a beacon on, shall we say, Skarvholmen, what does Hans Barrøy say to that, to this rock being of use for once instead of just a skerry in the sea?

He doesn’t know what to think.

It ruins his sleep. (p176)

One of my preferred titles on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist with the slow contemplative language and situations presenting the isolated family in a manner that suits their situation. A work that reminds me of previous Independent Foreign Fiction Prize or Man Booker International Prize longlisted works, and divergent from a number on the 2017 list. Translated by long time Karl Ove Knausguaard collaborator Don Bartlett, along with Don Shaw, the simple poetic language is a pleasure to read.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I think the simple subject matter will play against it when it comes to the main gong, but personally it should be included on the shortlist. It simply depends if the current judges still have a hint of Boyd Tonkin in their reading preferences or they are diverging radically from previous incarnations of the prize, we will know more on 20 April when the shortlist is revealed.


A Horse Walks Into A Bar – David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Unfortunately, I am going to have to plead ignorance of metaphor or political reference for this book. Although I am not, by any means, an expert on Israel histories, or the seaside city of Netanya, I did spend a little time researching the recent histories to see if there was a parallel to David Grossman’s book, all to no avail. I’m sure others will be able to point out my ignorance and feel free to add to the comments below if you have a revelation I simply missed.

Therefore, I am presenting my view on this novel based purely on the narrative presented.

The novel takes place over the course of a single evening, in a nightclub in Netanya, Israel. Dovale Gee is a 57-year-old depressed stand-up comedy performer who is giving a “show”, our narrator, is a childhood acquaintance who has been asked to attend, observe the show and report back on what he sees.

A novel that uses manipulative dialogue, mixing (poor) stand-up humour with a reflective manipulative dialogue, it is a journey into the mind of two middle-aged men:

How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into his hostages? (pp57)

After fifty-nine pages of setting up the awkward situation, our comic declares that he’s going to give us his life story. This divides the audience, a number wanting to hear, witness, his unravelling, a number turning on him, they’ve paid for a comedy show, not a personal outpouring.

As Dovale Gee opens his souls on stage, learning more about himself in the process, the other, our narrator, a retired judge, is also learning more about himself;

So how do I make sense of this? How do I explain the fact that I – with my twenty-five years of experience observing and listening, being attentive to every clue – was so blind to his condition, so self-absorbed? How did his frenetic chatter and nervous jokes affect me the way strobe lights affect an epileptic? How did I keep turning inwards, to my own life?

And how could it be that he, in his state, ultimately gave me what all the books I read and the movies I watched and the consolations offered by friends and relatives these past three years did not do for me? (pp71)

Reading this novel is akin to being a member of the audience, slowly watching Dovale unravel is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

There’s been a rustle in the audience for a few moments. It’s hard to tell exactly where it’s coming from. Almost everyone I look at seems fascinated by the story and by the storyteller – fascinated despite themselves, perhaps, sometimes with an expression of aversion, even terror. Yet there is a hum, as if from a distant hive, that has been rising from the crowd for a few minutes. (pp143)

On face value this novel is an exploration of two men, who have chosen different paths, both hitting middle-age and reflecting upon their lack of achievements, their shallow lives, a time of regret. Without spoilers, it is difficult to reveal too much about these lives that diverge and then meet again.

There is another childhood “friend” in the audience, adding a little reality and prompting further reflection on behalf of the comic, leading me to believe that there is an underlying metaphorical meaning to this work. Whether it is about a nation that is motherless/fatherless, a nation that distracts itself from the realities of the everyday by using humour, or simply an inability to connect, not having enough understanding of the intricacies of Israeli history means the story felt a little empty for me.

A book that is worth persisting with, simply to see the degeneration of the main character, it is not a work I would have chosen to add to my bulging bookshelves.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I don’t think so, whilst readable and not overly difficult, personally it lacked a “click” that made me stand up and take notice, I think it will be one of the longlist to drop by the wayside come 20 April when the shortlist is announced.

Black Moses – Alain Mabanckou (translated by Helen Stevenson) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


The lomglist of France’s pre-eminent literary award, the Prix Goncourt, contained fifteen works in 2015, with two of those books now appearing on the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2017. Mathias Enard’s “Compass’ (originally titled “Boussole” and now translated by Charlotte Mandell) eventually took out the award with “Black Moses” (originally titled “Petit Piment”, ‘Small Pepper”) making the final eight titles, however not the final four. The Prix Goncourt going through three selection processes before the winner is announced.

For interest sake, here are the four titles that made the final selection listing, Nathalie Azoulai “Titus n’aimait pas Bérénice”, Mathias Enard “Boussole”, Héde Kaddour “Les Prépondérants”, and Tobie Nathan “Ce pays qui te ressemble”. Maybe a few of these will make their way into English over the coming years!

Alain Mabanckou’s “Black Moses” takes place both in and not far from the coastal City of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, on the central west coast of Africa.

Our protagonist is an orphan, named “Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko” or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors”, a name given to him by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loango where he grows up.

The orphanage is ruled with an iron fist by the Director Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, and once the country falls to a Socialist revolution the much-loved priest Papa Moupelo no longer arrives at the orphanage and his room is emptied, a sign being erected on the door;


Of course religion disappears, and the corruption begins, the nephews of the Director, on his father’s side are promoted, on his mother’s side left to their current jobs.

It does not fall to everyone to become a section leader of the Union of Socialist Youth of Congo. The government sifted through the applications carefully, taking account of the ethnic origin of the candidates. As the northerners were in power – in particular the Mbochis – the leaders of the USYC were also Mbochis, an ethnic group which represented a scant 3.5 per cent of the national population. In other words, Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako had had to fight to fix the appointment of his three nephews, who were not Mbochi from the north, but Bembé from the south. In fact he had only partly got what he wanted because although they accepted his request, the political leaders of the Kouilou region suggested he go halves: his nephews could be section leaders, but under the command of the two nothereners, Oyo Ngoki and Mokélé Mbembé, who in turn would be accountable to the national division at the annual congress in Brazzaville, to be attended by the President of the Republic himself. (pp26)

The story becomes a tale of propaganda, and censored histories and a potted history of Communist rule in Congo and Angola, through Moses reciting the President’s speeches or through his interactions with the adults in the orphanage;

Suddenly serious, she adjusts her glasses: ‘I am the fruit of that one-night encounter, during which my mother may have said nothing, since she spoke no Spanish, and my father kept silent too, as he spoke neither French not any one of the dozens of languages of our country. My father, I’m told, was tall, handsome, with light brown eyes. I get my light skin from him; when I was young I was both teased and envied for it. People made fun of it because you could see straight away I wasn’t as black as the Congolese girls, so I had to be a bastard, “a Cuban”, which meant my mother must have gone with some soldier either because she wanted to have a child who was less black, or because she was secretly working as a prostitute near the military camps on the border, but I favour the first possibility. Yes, she did want to have a child with lighter skin, because at the time that represented a kind of superiority, it was silly, but it was all part of the complex we had about white people, anything white was superior, everything black was doomed, with no future, no tomorrow, are you still with me, Moses my friend…?’ (pp64)

A book that is split equally into two sections, the orphanage to begin with and then the streets of Pointe-Noire to conclude, we follow “Black Moses (or “Little Pepper” if you prefer his other nickname and the original title) through a disadvantaged life. Note – there is a small closing section, however in order not to give away spoilers I will not give details here.

An enjoyable read this is a book filled with references to anti-heroes throughout literature;

Behind the twins and the Tékés, I noticed the silhouettes of the three strange men we called ‘The Three Mosquiteers’, because they draped themselves in mosquito nets from dawn to dusk, convinced that the mosquitoes of the Côte Sauvage were only targeting them.

The Three Mosquiteers? There were four of them actually, if you counted their accomplice, the one-legged stammerer, though he didn’t cover himself with a mosquito net like the others. Since his other leg was missing, the stammerer couldn’t use one of his arms to arrange the mosquito net as it was busy compensating for the absence of his left leg. If he had had the full complement of limbs, he’d have done as the other three Mosquiteers did. That was the evening I realised that we in fact had four Mosquiteers with us, and the fourth, the one-legged stammerer, the youngest and most hot-headed of them, was only fourteen years old… (pp117)

Even the street gangs are open to corruption; “Now I understood why they ‘worked’ less and less and had taken a bit of a bourgeois turn.” (pp137), this is not simply a political or emotionally difficult story, it is also a story littered with joyful, humorous anecdotes;

‘Little Pepper, I’ll be frank with you: I think you need help. Your situation isn’t just serious, it’s completely and utterly desperate…’

For years he would continue to sing this refrain, as my memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.

Using a few details of the biblical Moses’ story, abandoned orphan, exile, and other references that could be spoilers, and mixed with the tale of Robin Hood, a renegade here working for the prostitutes of the east and the “poor”, and blended with a tale of a nation moving from French to Communist rule, this is a very readable novel. The downside being it is yet another African novel set in an orphanage, for some strange reason these seem to be the African works I come across when dabbling with translated works from that continent.

Through a coming-of-age story it is also a metaphor for the maturation of a nation, Black Moses’ story is playful, horrific, enjoyable and moving, all at the same time and it is also a story that contains a glimmer of hope.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Given the lack of African representation in recent years it may garner a few sympathy votes, but I see it as one of the solid entries that is filling the middle of the pack, just a little short of lifting the main gong. Whilst I rate it highly on my list of longlisted books read to date, I feel it will fall short on the night the winner is announced. Only time will tell…

War and Turpentine – Stefan Hertmans (translated by David McKay) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize and Best Translated Book Award


As a member of the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury in 2016, I was a lone voice with my views on “Mend The Living” by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore) and with “War and Turpentine” being longlisted for both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (a US based translation award), I feel my views are, again, going to be different than the broader population.

Before I present my views on this book I think I need to point out that personally I had no relationship with either of my grandfathers, with both of them not surviving World War II, this missing relationship in my life may have influenced my views on this book.

“War and Turpentine” is described on the back cover thus;

Shortly before his death in 1981, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave him some exercise books, filled with his writing. When Hertmans finally opened then, he discovered unexpected secrets. His grandfather’s life was marked by years of childhood poverty in late-nineteenth-century Belgium, by horrific experiences on the front lines during World War I and by the loss of the young love of his life. He sublimated his grief in the silence of painting.

So my first question…is this fiction? For example, outside of the obvious retelling from the exercise books, and a detailed recounting of the writer’s relationship with his grandfather, we also have numerous examples of research presented back to us. At one stage there are three pages dedicated to explaining the history of the Ghent World Fair and the plight of the Senegalese and Philippino visitors.

The book is split into three sections, the first recalling the writer’s relationship with his grandfather Urbain, the reading of the exercise books and an explanation of Urbain’s youth, relationship with his own father and the living conditions in 1800’s Belgium. The second section is a first person narration of Urbain’s experiences during World War II and the final section, his post-war life (back in the 3rd person) and relationships. There is a common theme of drawing and painting but it is sprinkled throughout.

The early section sets you up as a story of a writer’s connection with his grandfather, it is not just a history imagined, it contains a deeply personal edge. There is a fine balance between the telling of an anecdote and its personal interpretation and using poetic language Stefan Hertmans manages to walk this fine line, an example being the peppered references to Liverpool, these entice you to read further, surely the jigsaw puzzle will be completed and all the pieces will simply fall into place. But are these simply tricks drawn from a writer’s tool kit?

As a white-haired elder surrounded by an admiring circle of my aunties and cousins, he could spend hours lost in the particulars of that life in the last decade of the nineteenth century, his childhood years wrapped in the sulphurous fumes of early factories, the memories of the street hawkers’ cries, the slam of the thin wooden door of the public toilet at the end of the alley beside an ivy-covered wall that smelled of urine and nettles. The everyday dreariness of the first wave of industrialization had thoroughly shaped the contours of his thinking, although he also began early in life, after leafing through the few books his father owned, to dream of the colour palette of Tintoretto and Van Dyck.

Once the story moves to the front, and surrounds, during World War II, it is difficult to tell if  this is a history imagined, or a direct representation of Urbain’s exercise books, or a blend. Given the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, Hertmans tells us that his book needed to be completed to ensure he didn’t miss the publishing rush in 2014, and as we now know there are a large number of WWI fictions available as a result of this anniversary. Therefore the recreation of the horrors of the trenches needs to be masterful, at least, to stand out from a plethora of similar writings, either that or you have a great publicist working at your publishing house. With comments such as “A multi-award winner in Europe that sold 200,000 copies in the Netherlands and Belgium alone” appearing in the blubs, I’m firmly in the “great publicist” camp here.

The final section is an absolute mish-mash, almost unreadable, where Hertmans staggers from one cliché to the next trying to find an exit for his previous 290 odd pages. It covers Urbain’s post war life, hardly touches on WWII, tells little of his wife (Hertmans’ grandmother) or daughter, muddles around with copying paintings (is this a parallel reference to Hertmans copying his grandfathers’ exercise books) and uses melodrama poorly to keep you turning the pages. It is rare I tackle a 300 page book and keep procrastinating when only 29 pages from the end, with this one I delayed the last 10% for over a day and may well have left it aside if I didn’t have Shadow Jury duties.

Two overblown examples of cliché, plot device are the family heirloom, a pocket watch that has survived untold horrors (including the trenches) and a secret nude painting reproduction that brings tears to the eyes of Urbain, a cheap “mystery” device sprinkled throughout to keep you page turning.

If this book is fiction then it is over worked, formulaic and manipulative, if it is not fiction then what the f* is it doing on two literature longlists?

There is one redeeming feature for this book and it is the quality of the prose, Hertmans can write, it is a pity he has reduced himself to schmaltz, corniness and cheap writing techniques taught in books for “dummies”. Thank goodness he can write, it is the quality of the prose that rescues this book from the “unreadable” pile.

The Traitor’s Niche – Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Ismail Kadare’s “The Traitor’s Niche” was written between 1974-1976 and with the author having eighteen other books translated into English it is a shock that this work has taken almost 40 years to appear in tranlsation! (It was originally published in 1978).

Kadare has previously won the Man Booker International Prize, in 2005 the inaugural year, back when the award was presented for a body of work. Just have a look at this list of nominees for the 2005 award…Margaret Atwood, Saul Below, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Günter Grass, Milan Kundera, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Naguib Mahfouz, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, Antonio Tabucchi, John Updike and A.B. Yehoshua.

Collecting £60,000, with a further £15,000 he could pass onto a translator of his choice, Kadare said he was “deeply honoured” to win the prize.

“I am a writer from the Balkan Fringe, a part of Europe which has long been notorious exclusively for news of human wickedness,” he said.

“My firm hope is that European and world opinion may henceforth realise this region… can also give rise to other kinds of news and be the home of other kinds of achievement in the field of the arts, literature and civilisation.

“I would like to take the prize as confirmation that my confidence and my hopes have not been misplaced.” (BBC News 2 June 2005)

The chair of the judges, Professor John Carey, commenting that Kadare is “a universal writer in the tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer”.

I have previously reviewed Kadare’s 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted work “The Fall of the Stone City” (translated by John Hodgson) which lost out that year to Gerbrand Bakker’s “The Detour” (translated by David Colmer), and that was a tale of the plight of Albania during the second World War. Here Albania is still the centre player, this time under Ottoman rule;

Albania did not want just any kind of love. The love she demanded was special, self-effacing, urgent, aching, a love to the death. (pp 118)

The novel opens “At The Centre Of The Empire”, where the traitor’s niche is explained, a niche in the square of the city’s capital where the severed heads of traitor’s are displayed. The first two players we are introduced to are Abdulla, carer of the heads, and the doctor who comes to inspect them, checking for decay;

They tried to find some pretext to accuse the doctor and the keeper of not complying with the Regulations for the Care of Heads, and asked devious questions about the unnaturally yellow tinge of the vizier’s face and the lack of eye colour. Abdulla had been struck speechless, but the doctor courageously defended himself, and said that the vizier’s complexion, even in life, had been sallow, as is typical of men with rebellion and treason in their blood. As for the lack of colour in the eyes (which had in fact obviously begun to decompose), the doctor quoted the old saying that the eyes are a window to the soul: it would be useless to look for colour in the eyes of a man who had never had a soul. The doctor’s explanations were hardly convincing, not to say vacuous, but for this very reason they were hard to argue with. The inspectors were obliged to withdraw their remarks and the matter concluded with a mere reprimand and a warning of dismissal for Abdulla.

Although a simple tale, following the fortunes of Abdulla, the head keeper, the evil Tundj Hata, the collector and deliverer of heads and a couple of rebellious characters located in Albania who are  awaiting their headless fate, it is the masterful storytelling that brings this work to life. With both Albania and the lifeless heads taking on protagonist style roles the depth to the work is stunning;

Albania had rebelled many times since the death of Scanderbeg, may he never rest in peace, but never like this. This was an extended rebellion that came in waves like the shocks of an earthquake, sometimes overtly, sometimes in secret. It had been started long ago by the old Bushatli family in the north and continued by Ali Pasha Tepelena in the south, and was shaking the foundations of the historic empire. (pp21)

And the heads;

The head was establishing its rapport with the crowd. Its glassy eyes sought human eyes. Death hung in the air, transparently visible. As the cold tightened its grip, the spectators felt drawn closer to the frontier of death, almost touching it. In a few moments the crowd and death would congeal in a waxen, translucent unity. (pp60)

This novel is also a social commentary on the plight of marginalised groups, of course with an Albanian focus, using surreal, bleak imagery, with events such as scarecrows being carried into battle or Centres recording dreams to keep rebellion at bay, it is both dark and moving.

The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory. (pp149)

This section, although referring to older times, and written over 40 years ago rang true for me for local indigenous issues, but also current political situations worldwide. Yes we need to remain vigilant.

Can this win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Absolutely, even though it is one of Kadare’s older works it balances a simple storyline with a sharp political edge, a bleak dystopian effort from the pen of a master. Why it may not win is not just the age of the work, the lack of detailed characterisation is, at times, a little frustrating. Personally the fate of Abdulla, the head keeper, seemed a little rushed, a thread that needed tying. Overall a very enjoyable time spent with a wonderful writer.