The Hunger Games, I thought at some point during the International Booker Prize Shortlist Readings session. It was a puzzling thought, of course. It was a rare bright day in London on 22 May, 2022, and we were at the centre, the Southbank Centre, listening to the creators of the six beautiful books shortlisted this year. There was no bullish competitiveness amongst them, nor was this a matter of literal life and death. So why?
It was Caesar Flickerman. His TV presentations, curated interviews of tributes one after the other divided by District, the exorbitant rules and regulations about the format of the presentation, and the marketing of that whole exercise.
In this case I imagined a guideline passed around before the event (Anton Hur, the translator of The Cursed Bunny, even hinted at a rehearsal).
The writers and translators are to appear onto the stage on cue. You will all sit behind the host, writers on the right, translators and interpreters on the left, waiting for their chance. Upon your turn, the writer will read from the right lectern and take their place next to the host on the right. The translator will follow, on the left lectern, and take their place next to the host on the left. The interpreter will sit next to the writer. You will be asked two almost obvious questions, and you will answer them.
The host will alert you if there are any mistakes in this setup. The host will help you market your book better: when, for instance, Damion Searls describes the lines of the novel(s) he’s translated, A New Name: Septology VI-VII, as repetitive, the host will correct him: let’s not say repetitive, let’s say incantatory. (For the record, Searls held his ground and said repetitive is not boring; Freud would agree, as would a number of literary stylists.)
The host may also usher you backstage if you are seen hovering around and talking to the audience after the event. Where is the entropy? Only to be found in the pages of the shortlisted books.
Add to that all the shibboleths that came our way about “international” and translated literature – new knowledge from different cultures. How well-meaning we were, to attend this event and show our support to literature from outside the borders of Britain. For some of us there, and perhaps for most of the writers and translators on stage, English literature is itself international, isn’t it, but no less intimate for that. When can we begin thinking of all literature this way?
Beyond stage and lectern divisions was also the curious division of questions. Writers were mostly asked about content, and translators about process. How to contend with different translations of the same novel, Anton Hur? David Boyd and Samuel Bett, what drew you to Heaven, and how did the translation work between two people? What genre was Elena Knows for you as a translator, Frances Riddle? These were the better questions.
Writers, on the other hand, were expected to don new roles, expressing an opinion about the themes their work invoked. Meiko Kawakami, the author of Heaven, was made a philosopher of friendship and trust: would it save the world, or at least the youth? Bora Chung, the author of The Cursed Bunny, was quizzed about what conditions affected her young protagonists: she said “to be killed,” demanding that we confront the irredeemable quality of those conditions (but that was lost on the host, who thought Chung was giving away the ending).
And Geetanjali Shree, author of Tomb of Sand, was asked to embody the avatar of a motivational speaker and tell us if #it’snevertoolatetolivelife. A New Name’s author Jon Fosse, whose attendance was virtual and pre-recorded, was asked: “Is it banal to search for happiness?” One would think the aim of literature was to resist the platitudes of these questions.
Still, the responses were stimulating. Jon Fosse disregarded the question, and said happiness – or peace as he called it – was in finding a form for the event and activity he’s bringing to the paper: to put the frustration, the banality, life itself in the form of a sentence that looks like its very form. Fosse redirected the question to the act of writing and reading.
Boyd and Bett also talked of form: translation as finding the ligaments that connect individual translated chunks. Searls dilated on the fact that most people get it wrong when they say that the septology is one long sentence, for it is not really a grammatical unit like that, but actually separated by commas and “and”, divided therefore into whole phrases and the whole point was to make those phrases work individually and then in conjunction with the whole thing, like each phrase were a tributary that also needed to be locked together with other tributaries.
Olga Tokarczuk, author of The Books of Jacob, also on pre-recorded video, had a few words against the valorisation of realism, and how her fiction was more concerned with the “everyday metaphysics” of everything. Surely Bora Chung and Geetanjali Shree, both of whose works are genre-defying in their own right, would have something to add to that. So there could have been, in an alternate event where everyone on stage were put in conversation with one another, a whole back-and-forth on form. Imagine that.
Imagine, also, the cleverness of Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell, as they refused any reduction of Tomb of Sand as being “about” an old woman rediscovering life, reading in their turn a passage with crows and their crow council meetings, part of which is worth quoting in full:
“The assembled crows cawed approvingly, or shall we say that it would have sounded simply like caw caw to humans had they been listening, the way every language does to an unfamiliar ear, be it Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, or Morse code.”
It would have been like that for many there, listening to a host of languages when the authors read out from their work. But it is also what it is to say ‘international,’ no? Caw caw.
Once the event was over, a lot of the audience thronged the foyer, where we had been reminded again and again about signed copied being sold by Foyles. I kept asking, what about people who’ve already bought – or worse, read – these books and wanted signatures. That, after all, is why many attend these events. I got sorries and shrugs and a line about Covid, which would’ve made sense if not for the fact that we had a ninety-five minute event indoors with no mask mandate in place.
In any case, post-event sales at Foyles looked excellent, which is good for literature in general, of course. I did see tally numbers on the sales record on the display table. A greater mind would have peeped surreptitiously and predicted audience choice awards, at the very least, but I was busy wondering if I should swap my read and underlined and annotated copy of Elena Knows for the signed-in-green-and-black copy on the table. I didn’t. Let’s just say it was because I’m ethical and valued my annotations, and not because the sales guy had the eyes of a hawk.