The International Booker Prize
Founded in 2005 as The Man Booker International Prize, this award recompenses fiction translated into English, published in the UK or Ireland. It is awarded by judges that change yearly. From 2005 to 2016, the award rewarded an author for their body of work. Since 2016, the prize changed focus slightly by consecrating one book of fiction translated into English by a non-Anglophone author. The prize has come into its own by showcasing unique translated fiction. Whilst the prize has honoured great women authors in translation: Jokha Alharthi, Han Kang and Olga Tokarczuk and non-binary authors: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, much still needs doing to consecrate more authors from underrepresented languages or regions. Read on for three prize-winner reviews!
Written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
Like a demented magnet in an off-kilter compass, 2018’s winner Flights by Nobel Prize winning Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, is a fragmentary novel with as many digressions as motorway exit signs. It’s a book on the move. As Guardian reviewer Kapka Kassabova states, Tokarczuk belongs to a tradition of ‘essayistic’ novels a la Danilo Kis, W.G. Sebald or even Rebecca Solnit.
One anchor point of the novel is found in its original Polish title of Beiguni, referring to a Slavic sect of wanderers as it’s from their teachings that loose webs are woven between anatomical pathologies preserved in jars, taxidermists, Chopin’s heart and a fluid essence eluding categorization.
Jennifer Croft’s sublime translation theorizes on hotel lobbies and the psychology of travel to rival anthropologist Marc Auge’s non-places. A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk’s vignettes about human bodies and movement echo a liquid modernity heralded by Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman.
Described as a constellation novel, or by the New Yorker’s James Wood as ‘a work of cultural tourism about cultural tourism, a series of movements about movements.’ Whether it’s the letters from the desperate daughter of an African servant who’s been embalmed and put on display, or the epiphanies of airports, it’s a baffling book comprised of “moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations”. As R.S. Thomas put it in Somewhere:
‘What are our lives but harbours
we are continually setting out
from, airports at which we touch
down and remain in too briefly
to recognise what it is they remind us of?’
The Discomfort of Evening
Written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchinson (Faber & Faber, 2020)
This beautiful and evocative novel, recipient of the 2020 International Booker Prize, is certainly an uneasy read.
The book opens up with Jas, a 10-year-old who lives on a dairy farm with her conservative family, between the 20th and the 21st century. When a sudden death occurs, Jas and the rest of the family learn how to cope with grief in their own way: never talking about it, but constantly hiding their pain within themselves. Jas’ mother becomes severely depressed, her father more focused on work, her sister more childish and dependent on Jas, and finally her brother more disturbed and troubled.
Jas constantly yearns for her parent’s attention, forbidding herself to go to the toilet, as to concern her mother and father on the only thing that seemed like a viable topic of conversation: as if the only way to take care of a child was to make sure their basic needs (eating, drinking etc) are met.
The incredibly detailed and poetic language makes the reader fall in love with both author and translator: Jas’ mom’s lips are “like mating slugs” and Jas’ grandma’s face begins to “ooze eggnog as thin as yolk”.
The discomfort the protagonist feels throughout her life, for everything she endures, is directly felt by the reader, through these evocative images and the naiveté the narrating voice has in making us participants of her inner world.
A morbidly delightful and disturbing novel that cannot be forgotten.
Written by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Granta, 2015)
Han Kang’s 2007 Korean novel The Vegetarian was inspired by an earlier short story of hers in which a woman slowly turns into a plant. This eco-Cronenbergian vision laid the groundwork for the subsequent novel, which was not to receive widespread acclaim until almost a decade later, following Deborah Smith’s remarkable translation that brought Kang’s story to mainstream attention.
In Kang’s novel, societal and familial expectations loom large over her titular subject, Yeong-hye, a woman described by her husband as being “completely unremarkable in every way”.
Yeong-hye and her husband are defined by their mediocrity and the repressive desire to conform dominates their loveless and empty marriage. After Yeong-hye’s husband finds her throwing away all their meat one night, following her sudden decision to become a vegetarian, the facade of social conformity quickly begins to crumble and familial ties start to strain as the novel becomes increasingly and wonderfully bizarre.
Yeong-hye’s motivations are kept largely mysterious from the other characters. The dreams with which she attributes her decision to becoming a vegetarian are the only interior glimpse into Yeong-hye’s mind the reader is given. These short paragraphs are bloody and twisted, a far cry from Yeong-hye’s outwardly timid behaviour. Seen from the perspective of three different narrators, Yeong-hye’s status is examined under both personal and objectifying lenses, with Kang inviting the reader to try and unravel Yeong-hye’s enigmatic actions.
Kang’s psychological fable is an enrapturing experience, a dreamlike examination of eroticism, objectification and the acts of rebellion that are made necessary by dysfunctional societal expectations.