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Longlist for the 2021 International Booker Prize Announced

By Giulia Maggiori, Bianca Fiore and Oisin Harris

On 30 March, the judges of this year’s International Booker Prize revealed the thirteen novels competing for the prestigious award that recognises extraordinary works of fiction in translation. The winner will be announced in June while the shortlist is to be published on 22 April. The full 2021 International Booker Prize longlist is:

  • I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

  • At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, Pushkin Press

  • The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

  • The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

  • When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

  • The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

  • Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

  • An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

  • Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

  • Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

  • The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

The list is quite heterogeneous, there are eleven languages and twelve countries featured, and only one author, Can Xue, is a veteran longlister.

Translation fans will be excited to see languages which are usually less represented, like Gikuyu and Georgian, and we know that the dominance of independent publishers will not go unnoticed among the readers of The Publishing Post. Here is our take on some of the novels included in this extraordinary shortlist: When We Cease to Understand the World, An Inventory of Losses, At Night All Blood is Black and The Perfect Nine. And if you want to read our review of Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, you can find it in the first issue of The Publishing Post.

When We Cease to Understand the World submerges us in the minds of those who first opened our eyes to singularities, black holes and quantum mechanics. These prophetic epiphanies form an alternate book of revelations inviting us into the dark implosions and infinite light that science encounters. Labatut’s writing dissects the duality of progress and annihilation coursing through modern science. From characters like Fritz Haber, who simultaneously discovered the Zyklon B pesticide later used by Nazis to genocide Europe’s Jewish population, but also managed to obtain nitrogen directly from the air, to the visions of Karl Schwarzschild, father of the Schwarzschild singularity. Reading this non-fiction novel, we are: “like a child attempting to put together a puzzle after losing the box-top, enjoying the pleasure of assembling the pieces but ignorant of its true design’. But what pleasure lies in viewing what ‘all Schrodinger’s mechanics revealed: blurry images, a ghostly presence, diffuse and undefined. The vague outline of something not of this world.

An Inventory of Losses sets out to ludically catalogue various instances of lost things: actors, islands and tigers and a cornucopia of ephemeral presences. Schalansky, in a very orderly fashion, depicts the disappearance of twelve “artefacts” and often relates these vanishings back to her own life or of other characters and times.

She switches styles per section and these mutations are skilfully translated by Jackie Smith who retains each tale’s fluidity. This genre-defying book’s central tenet concerns the power inherently present in the gaps we try to plug with knowledge. A cabinet of curiosities, if you will, for lost property.

At Night All Blood is Black is an historical-fiction novel set in Senegal during World War I. Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier who is fighting for the French army, needs to kill one of his comrades who has been seriously injured. And yet he finds he is unable to do it. The book explores an often-forgotten side of WWI: the psychological effect it had on those who fought in it. Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, this is David Diop’s first work translated into English.

The Perfect Nine is an epic novel celebrating the founding of Kenya. Written in verse, it is the most peculiar of the titles longlisted for the International Booker Prize. Translated from Gikuyu (a Bantu language spoken in Kenya) by the author himself, The Perfect Nine marked a new historical moment for the International Booker Prize. It is, indeed, the first time a writer is nominated both as author and translator. Will this encourage more authors to dedicate themselves to translating their own titles?


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