The Man Booker International Prize currently recognises the best in translated fiction in English from around the world. Before 2016, the prize was also open to books originally written in English, and the recipients of the prize included Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe, and Philip Roth. If a work of translation won before 2016, the translator received a fraction of what the author received.
Since 2016, the prize is reserved solely for translated works into English, and the author and the translator evenly split the £50,000 prize. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize merged with the Man Booker International Prize when it began to focus solely on translation.
The longlist for the prize usually presents an opportunity to learn of the works of writers one wouldn’t necessarily read otherwise. The countries represented in this year’s list are Argentina, Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Poland, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan. Spain has three titles in the running, and France has two. The 2015 and 2016 winners, László Krasznahorkai and Han Kang, respectively, and an earlier winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Javier Cercas, are all up again for this year’s prize. Here’s our quick guide:
The 7th Function of Language, by Laurent Binet (France), translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Binet’s novel reinterprets the death of Roland Barthes, who was struck by a laundry van on a Parisian street after lunch with the future French President Francois Mitterrand. Barthes’s death is widely accepted as an accident, but The 7th Function of Language frames it as a possible assassination. In Binet’s telling, the van driver is a paid assassin, and Barthes is in possession of a valuable document which revealed that language has a secret and seventh function that could be wielded to exert extraordinary influence over a person. The suspects are everyone from Mitterrand through the KGB to the intelligence agencies of various countries. This is a romp that takes apart European (and a few American) philosophers, and linguists in the most outrageous way.
The Imposter, by Javier Cercas (Spain), translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Cercas’s fiction focuses on the unreliability of historical memory with respect to the Spanish Civil War era and the decades that followed. In The Imposter, he turns his eye to the real-life humiliated figure of Enric Marco, who was president of an association of Spanish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. He was an eloquent, well-respected orator till he was exposed as never having been in a concentration camp. Through painstaking research and conversations with journalists who covered Marco, Marco’s friends and acquaintances, and Marco himself, Cercas has created a novel out of the life of a man whose relationship with the truth makes for fascinating storytelling.
Vernon Subutex 1, by Virginie Despentes (France), translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Despentes’s creations are members of Generation X, who must find a balance between freedom and accountability. Once the owner of a famous music shop in Paris, Vernon’s luck turns with the times as sales of CDs dwindle. He survives for a while on the generosity of a friend and famous musician who pays his rent. But when the friend suddenly dies of an overdose, Vernon is evicted and leaves with the last known recordings by his friend. As Vernon struggles to find similarly generous people to house him, record producers and others begin to trail him for access to the elusive tapes.
Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
The uneasy problem with Erpenbeck’s latest is that it centres around a German man’s curiosity about refugees from Africa. Erpenbeck’s novel follows a newly retired classics professor in Berlin. His days are emptied of purpose without a job, and he spends time on his boat on a lake until an accidental fatality in the water deters him from returning. On the news, he hears of a hunger strike by African refugees in a legal limbo. Despite a lengthy career in academia, Richard is astonished to find out that Africa is made up of 54 countries. He takes it upon himself to interview these men, to help them develop their conversational German, and to learn the stories of their lives through a series of carefully compiled questions. Bernofsky’s translation has been widely praised by reviewers and readers alike.
The White Book, by Han Kang (South Korea), translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Kang returns with a third, more sparse collaboration with Smith. The narrator, loosely based on Kang, reflects on the death of a sister two hours after she is born. The White Book uses items that are white in colour – pebble, salt, rice, breast milk, and more – to remember and mourn the brief life and the expansive loss. Throughout the book are photographs of white objects. Written during a writing residency in Warsaw, the novel is set in a city rendered white by snow and stone ruins. The novel seems to ask whether any event following a loss can qualify as anything other than a replacement.
Die, My Love, by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff
Harwicz wrote Die, My Love during a tremendously difficult period following the birth of her child. She wrote the novel based on her own experience of feeling alienated and repulsed by her husband and child. Her novel makes for discomforting reading as she explores what it means to live with worsening mental instability while people depend on you. Afflicted with a deep distaste for the ordinary, the narrator abandons her life from time to time to escape to a nearby woodland. If a nameless character meant to critique society’s imposition of roles interests you, then Harwicz’s books might be right for you.
The World Goes On, by László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes
The reviews agree on one thing alone – Krasznahorkai’s latest makes for complex reading whose implications are obscure. The short stories are split into three sections, “Speaks,” “Narrates,” and “Bids Farewell.” The connections between the stories is tenuous – the characters are gripped by a desire to escape. A boy encounters a stuffed whale corpse, a man is deeply obsessed with waterfalls, a telegram is left at the post office without a posting address, a man finds a puppy sitting next to a dead dog, and so on. As one of the characters says, “I don’t want to die, just to leave this earth.” For a dose of weirdness, for a book that won’t yield in one reading, turn to this one.
Like a Fading Shadow, by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), translated from the Spanish by Camilo A Ramirez
For two months, James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who assassinated Martin Luther King, was on the run from the authorities. Molina’s novel focuses on ten days during that period when Ray was hiding out in Lisbon under a false identity, trying to get passage to any African colony where his white supremacist views would be accepted. The novel minutely charts how Ray spent those days, and what went through his mind before he finally headed back to London where he was apprehended and sentenced to life imprisonment. The chapters on Ray are strangely and at times ineptly interspersed with chapters on Molina’s own life, writing career, and affair.
The Flying Mountain, by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated from the German by Simon Pare
The English translation of The Flying Mountain has been a long time coming. The original was written in 2006 and translated into many other languages in the meantime. Two Irish brothers travel from Ireland to the Trans-Himalayan mountain range in China where they hope to scale a mountain that hasn’t been climbed before. Told in a form that resembles prose poetry (though Ransmayr refutes the idea that only poets should be able to experiment with blank space), the novel is a beautiful meditation on what drives people to traverse the ends of their known worlds.
Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a brutal reworking of Mary Shelley’s tale for brutal times. Corpses, body parts scattered in the streets, and burials are a part of Baghdad’s daily narrative in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq. When a well-intentioned junk dealer tries to respectfully put back together a body using dismembered parts, events lead to a vigilante Frankenstein who is determined and ruthless in his quest to find and kill the people responsible for the violence. The original in Arabic won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014.
Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft
The title of the original is Bieguni – the name of a Slavic sect that travelled constantly, relied on alms, and believed that stability had to be avoided at all costs to escape evil. Halfway between essays and fiction, the book is interested in humans who choose to keep moving rather than stay in one place. The narrator is just such a person, who finds the settled lives of her parents a stifling idea for herself. She links this desire to the widespread phenomenon of travelling. She sees connections between the slow discovery and study of human anatomy and the exploration of lands. Flights makes an excellent introduction to Tokarczuk’s work for the uninitiated.
The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk.
The Stolen Bicycle is a story of one Taiwanese family’s obsession with stolen bicycles. Ch’eng writes a novel about his father who helped build fighter planes in Japan at the turn of the century. At the close of the novel, the father and his bicycle disappear. Encouraged by one of his readers, Ch’eng sets out to find the lost bicycle – a kind no longer manufactured in Taiwan. He visits bicycle enthusiasts, marketplaces destroyed during the war, the home of a war photographer who reveals to him that the forests and animals were as devastated as humans during the war. His journey through Taiwan becomes an uncovering of forgotten historical narratives about bicycles and butterflies.
The Dinner Guest, by Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
In 1977, in the Spanish port city of Bilbao, Ybarra’s grandfather, the mayor of the city, was kidnapped by terrorists. The world watched on as the terrorists negotiated the release of prisoners who were their fellow comrades. After making increasingly unreasonable demands, they announced that they had killed him. In her debut, Ybarra takes up the well-known story in thinly veiled fiction that explores that horrific chapter in our family history as well as the subsequent death of her mother from cancer.