Leïla Slimani, chair of the 2023 International Booker Prize jury, announced this year’s shortlist of six books at the London Book Fair on Tuesday. “Subversive and sensual”, every book on the shortlist originates in a different country: Bulgaria, Côte d’Ivoire, France, Mexico, South Korea, and Spain. The shortlisted translators represent five countries – Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Bulgarian and Catalan are two languages featuring for the first time on the shortlist. Two of the novels on the shortlist are debuts: Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim; and Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated from the French by Frank Wynne. On the other hand, 89-year-old Maryse Condés The Gospel According to the New World, translated from the French by Richard Philcox, is believed to be her final book. Condé is also the oldest author to ever be nominated for the Prize.
The winning title will be announced on May 23. The cash prize of £50,000 will be divided equally between the author and translator.
Here are the opening lines of the six shortlisted titles:
Still Born, Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
A couple of weeks ago some new neighbours moved into the apartment next door. It’s a woman with a little boy who seems dissatisfied with life, to say the least. I’ve not seen him yet, but I can tell this just by listening to him. He comes back from school at around two in the afternoon, when the smell of cooking that emerges from his house wafts along the hallways and down the stairs of our building. Everyone knows when he’s arrived from the impatient way that he presses the buzzer. As soon he has closed his own front door, the decibel level increases as he starts shouting to complain about what’s for lunch. Judging by the smell, the food in his house cannot be either healthy or tasty, but the boy’s reaction is undoubtedly over the top. He hurls insults and profanities around, which is somewhat disconcerting in a child of his age. He also slams doors and throws all sorts of things at the walls. These outbursts tend to last a long time. Since they moved in, I’ve heard three of them, and on not one of those occa- sions was I able to listen all the way through, so I wouldn’t be able to say how they end. He shouts so loudly and so desperately that it forces me to leave the house in a hurry. I have to admit, I have never really got along well with children.
Standing Heavy, GauZ’, translated from the French by Frank Wynne
The Black men mounting the narrow staircase look like climbers roped together for an assault on K2, the most fearsome peak in the Himalayas. Their ascent is punctuated only by the sound of feet on stairs, footsteps muffled by a thick red carpet laid precisely in the middle of a stairwell so narrow that two men cannot pass. The steps are steep, and knees are raised high. Nine treads, a landing, then nine more, make a floor. With each floor, the weary mountaineers become more spaced out. From time to time, there comes the sound of someone catching his breath. Reaching the sixth floor, the first in line presses the button of the cyclopean intercom, its lone eye the black lens of a security camera. The vast office in which they find themselves, bathed in sweat, is open-plan. No walls interrupt the space between the men, and the glass cage is emblazoned with the three letters that mark the territory of the dominant male of this place: CEO. A huge picture window generously affords a view over the rooftops of Paris. Forms are handed out. Left, right and centre. Here, they are recruiting. They are recruiting security guards. Project-75 has just been granted several major security contracts for a variety of commercial properties in the Paris area. They are in urgent need of massive manpower. Word quickly spread through the African “community”.
Time Shelter, Georgi Gospodinovr, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
At one point they tried to calculate when time began, when exactly the earth had been created. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Irish bishop Ussher calculated not only the exact year, but also a starting date: October 22, 4,004 years before Christ. It was a Saturday (of course). Some even say Ussher gave a precise time of day as well-around six in the afternoon. Saturday afternoon, that sounds completely believable to me. When else would a bored creator set about building a world and finding himself some company? Ussher devoted years I of his life to this, his work itself numbered two thousand pages in Latin; I doubt many have ever made the actual discovery. They started to print the Bibles on the island with a date and chronology according to Ussher. This theory of the young earth (and of young time, if you ask me) captivated the Christian world. It should be noted that even scientists like Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton estimated specific years for the divine act of creation that more or less coincided with that of Ussher. But still, the most mind-boggling thing for me is not the year and its relative recency, but the specific day.
October 22, four thousand and four years before Christ, at six in the afternoon.
On or around December 1910, human character changed. So wrote Virginia Woolf. And one can imagine that December 1910, ostensibly like all the others, gray, cold, smelling of fresh snow. But something had been unleashed, which only a few could sense.
On September 1, 1939, early in the morning, came the end of human time.
The Gospel According to the New World, Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox
It’s a land surrounded by water on all sides, commonly known as an island, not as big as Australia, but not small either. It is mostly flat but embossed with thick forests and two volcanoes, one that goes by the name of Piton de la Grande Chaudière, which was active until 1820 when it destroyed the pretty little town that sprawled down its side, after which it became totally dormant. Since the island enjoys an “eternal summer,” it is perpetually crowded with tourists, aiming their lethal cameras at anything of beauty. Some people affectionately call it “My Country,” but it is not a country, it is an overseas territory, in other words, an over- seas department.
The night He was born, Zabulon and Zapata were squabbling with each other high up in the sky, letting fly sparks of light with every move. It was an unusual sight. Anyone who regularly scans the heavens is used to seeing Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, the Evening Star, and Orion, but to discover two such constellations emerging from the depths of infinity was something un- heard of. It meant that He who was born on that night was preordained for an exceptional destiny. At the time, nobody seemed to think otherwise.
Whale, Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
Chunhui-or Girl of Spring-was the name of the female brickmaker later celebrated as the Red Brick Queen upon being discovered by the architect of the grand theatre. She was born one winter in a stable to a beggarwoman, as the war was winding down. She was already seven kilos when she emerged and plumped up to more than a hundred kilos by the time she turned fourteen. Unable to speak, she grew up isolated in her own world. She learned everything about brickmaking from Mun, her stepfather. When the inferno killed eight hundred souls, Chunhui was charged with arson, imprisoned, and tor- tured. After many long years in prison, she returned to the brick- yard. She was twenty-seven.
In the heat of the summer day, Chunhui stood in the middle of the brickyard in her blue prison uniform, as the sun, closer now to the earth than it had been all year, scorched everything in sight. It was hot enough to melt cast iron. The pump in the mid- dle of the yard had dried up long ago, leaving behind only a rusty stain on the ground where water had dripped down the metal pipe. Purslane, thistle, and foot-tall weeds had worked their way up through the hard, trampled earth and grown thick and tan- gled around the kilns.
Boulder, Eva Baltasar, translated from the Catalan by Julia Sanches
Quellón. Chiloé. A night years ago. Sometime after ten. No sky, no vegetation, no ocean. Only the wind, the hand that grabs at everything. There must be a dozen of us. A dozen souls. In a place like this, at a time like now, you can call a person a soul. The wharf is small and sloped. The island surrenders to the water in concrete blocks with a number of cleats bolted to them in a row. They look like the deformed heads of the colossal nails that pin the dock to the seabed. That’s all. I’m amazed at the islanders’ stillness. They sit scattered under the rain beside large objects the size of trunks. Swaddled in windproof plastic, they eat in silence with thermoses locked between their thighs. They wait. The rain pounds down as though cursing at them, runs along their hunched backs and forms rivulets that flow into the sea, the enormous mouth that never tires of swallowing, receiving. The cold feels peculiar. It’s possible I’ve drunk some of it myself, since I can feel it thrashing and bucking under my skin, and also deeper inside, in the arches between each organ. Impenetrable islanders. I’ve been here for three months, working as a cook at a couple of summer camps for teenagers. In the evenings I would cycle to town and drink aguardiente at the hostel bar. There were barely any women. It was a workers’ ritual. Stained teeth bared in greeting. The jet-black eyes of every family tree that’s managed to grow on this salty rock speak to me from their tables. They speak to me for all of the dead.