According to the Booker Prize website, “[r]evolutionary in form, in content and in point of view, the books on this year’s shortlist are all urgent, energetic and wildly original works of literature. The stories told include: terrifying tales of unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women set in contemporary Argentina; the historical account of two Senegalese soldiers fighting for France during the first world war; the lives of the crew working on the Six-Thousand Ship in the 22nd century; stories of the defining moments from the history of science; the exploration of cultural and personal memory, using the author’s Jewish family in Russia as the basis; and a tale of rebellion against power and privilege set during the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Germany.
At Night All Blood is Black, David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, Pushkin Press
…I know, I understand, I shouldn’t have done it. I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old, old man, I understand, I shouldn’t have. God’s truth, now I know. My thoughts belong to me alone, I can think what I want. But I won’t tell. The ones I might have told my secret thoughts to, my brothers-in-arms who will be left so disfigured, maimed, eviscerated, that God will be ashamed to see them show up in Paradise and the Devil will be happy to welcome them to Hell, will never know who I really am.
The survivors won’t know a thing, my old father won’t know, and my mother, if she is still of this world, will never find out. The weight of shame will not be added to the weight of my death. They won’t imagine what I’ve thought, what I’ve done, the depths to which the war drove me. God’s truth, the family honor will be spared, the honor of appearances.
I know, I understand, I shouldn’t have. In the world before, I wouldn’t have dared, but in today’s world, God’s truth, I allow myself the unthinkable. No voice rises in my head to forbid me: my ancestors’ voices and my parents’ voices all extinguished themselves the minute I conceived of doing what, finally, I did. I know now, I swear to you that I understood it fully the moment I realized that I could think anything. It happened like that, all of a sudden without warning, it hit me brutally in the head, like a giant seed of war dropped from the metallic sky, the day Mademba Diop died.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books
My grandma didn’t like the rain, and before the first drops fell, when the sky grew dark, she would go out to the backyard with bottles and bury them halfway, with the whole neck underground; she believed those bottles would keep the rain away. I followed her around asking, “Grandma why don’t you like the rain why don’t you like it?” No reply – Grandma dodged my questions, shovel in hand, wrinkling her nose to sniff the humidity in the air.
If it did eventually rain, whether it was a drizzle or a thunderstorm, she shut the doors and windows and turned up the volume on the TV to drown out the sound of wind and the raindrops on the zinc roof of the house. And if the downpour coincided with her favourite show, Combat!, there wasn’t a soul who could get a word out of her, because she was hopelessly in love with Vic Morrow.
I just loved the rain, because it softened the dry earth and let me indulge in my obsession with digging. And boy, did I dig! I used the same shovel as Grandma, a very small one, like a child’s beach toy only made of metal and wood instead of plastic. The plot at the far end of the yard held little pieces of green glass with edges so worn they no longer cut you, and smooth stones that seemed like round pebbles or small beach rocks – what were those things doing out behind my house? Someone must have buried them there.
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press
In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequences of his addiction to dithrydocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day. William Burroughs described it as similar to heroin, twice as strong as codeine, but with a wired coke-like edge, so the North American doctors felt obliged to cure Göring of his dependency before allowing him to stand before the court.
This was not easy. When the Allied forces caught him, the Nazi leader was dragging a suitcase with more than twenty thousand doses, practically all that remained of Germany’s production of the drug at the end of the Second World War. His addiction was far from exceptional, for virtually everyone in the Wehrmacht received Pervitin as part of their rations, methamphetamine tablets that the troopers used to stay awake for weeks on end, fighting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor, with overexertion leading many to suffer attacks from irrepressible euphoria.
The Employees, Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions
It’s not hard to clean them. The big one, I think, sends out a kind of a hum, or is it just something I imagine? Maybe that’s not what you mean? I’m not sure, but isn’t it female? The cords are long, spun from blue and silver fibres. They keep her up with a strap made out of calf-coloured leather with prominent white stitching. What colour is a calf, actually? I’ve never seen one. From her abdomen runs this long, pink, cord-like thing. What do you call it? Like the fibrous shoot of a plant.
It takes longer to clean than the others. I normally use a little brush. One day she’d laid an egg. If I’m allowed to say something here, I don’t think you should have her hung up all the time. The egg had cracked when it dropped. The egg mass was on the floor underneath her and the thready end of the shoot was stuck in the egg mass. I ended up removing it. I’ve not told anyone before now. Maybe that was a mistake. The next day there was a hum. Louder than that, like an electric rumble. And the day after that she was quiet. She hasn’t made a sound since then. Is there some kind of sadness there?
I always use both hands. I couldn’t say if the others have heard anything or not. Mostly I go there when everyone’s asleep. It’s no problem keeping the place clean. I’ve made it into my own little world. I talk to her while she rests. It might not look like much. There’s only two rooms. You’d probably say it was a small world, but not if you have to clean it.
In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Aunt Galya, my father’s sister, died. She was just over eighty. We hadn’t been close – there was an uneasiness between the families and a history of perceived snubs. My parents had what you might call troubled dealings with Aunt Galya, and we almost never saw her. As a result, I had little chance to form my own relationship with her. We met infrequently, we had the odd phone call, but towards the end she unplugged her phone, saying “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
Then she disappeared entirely into the world she had built for herself: layered strata of possessions, objects and trinkets in the cave of her tiny apartment. Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty: the dream of rearranging her possessions into a definitive order, of painting the walls and hanging the curtains.
At some point, years ago, she began the process of decluttering her apartment, and this gradually consumed her. She was permanently shaking things out, checking anew what objects were essential. The contents of the apartment constantly needed sorting and systematising, each and every cup required careful consideration, books and papers stopped existing for themselves and became mere usurpers of space, forming barricades that crossed the apartment in little heaps.
The War of the Poor, Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Picador
His father had been hanged. Dropped into the void like a sack of feed. They’d had to carry him on their shoulders at night; then he made not a sound, his mouth full of earth. After that, everything had caught fire. The oaks, the fields, the rivers, the white bedstraw on the embankment, the barren soil, the church, everything. He was eleven years old. At the age of fifteen, he had formed a secret league to oppose the Archbishop of Magdeburg and the Church of Rome. He read the Epistles of Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Papias’s Fragments. With several comrades, he praised God’s marvels, crossed the Jordan in a dressing gown; afterwards he traced the cosmic wheel (a sign of assembly) on the ground in chalk and they each lay on it in turn, arms outstretched, so that Heaven might descend to Earth. And then, he remembered the corpse of his father, the enormous tongue like a single, desiccated word. ‘I was filled with joy, but one unites with God only through terrible suffering and despair.’ That’s what he believed. They say that in Stolberg, there was a vintner by the name of Barthol Munzer. And they still talk about a Monczer Berld and a Monczers Merth, but nothing is known about them. There is also a Thomas Miinzer, killed in a bar brawl. We don’t know if he got hit in the face with a fist or a log, nor do we know if he was related to Thomas Müntzer, the one whose father, around 1500, for reasons unknown, was executed on the orders of the Count of Stolberg – some say hanged, others say burned.