On April 22, the International Booker Prize announced the six books in the running to win the title for 2021. The award seeks to recognise literature from across the world, translated into English, and the prize money of 50,000 euros is shared equally between the translator and writer. The books on this list have been recognised for their subversion of genre and the originality of the prose. The list is dominated by independent publishers, and two thirds of the shortlist are new voices in the English-speaking world.
Perhaps for the first time in the history of the award, the shortlist includes works that operate in the grey area between fiction and non-fiction, combining elements of both. The inclusion of a book of short stories was also a relatively rare phenomenon for a prize that has tended to focus on novels.
The shortlist was selected from 125 books by a jury comprising cultural historian and novelist Lucy Hughes-Hallett (chair); journalist and writer Aida Edemariam; Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Neel Mukherjee; Professor of the History of Slavery Olivette Otele; and poet, translator and biographer George Szirtes. The winner will be announced on June 2, 2021.
At Night All Blood Is Black, David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
This short 160-page length novel is set in the Western trenches of WW1 and told from the perspective of Alfa, a young Senegalese man who is recruited to fight for the French against Germany in the war. The book details the transformation of Alfa, who has had aspirations outside of Africa, but is forced to adopt savagery and ruthlessness in the trenches.
When his friend Mademba is wounded by the Germans, he asks Alfa to kill him out of mercy. Alfa is unable to do this, and painfully renounces his cowardice by slaughtering all the Germans he can find. Initially looked at with admiration, Alfa’s image is soon transformed into that of a cruel “soul-eater.” His comrades plan to make him get away from the front before his descent into madness goes deeper. This is Diop’s second book and his debut in the English language. The book has won the LA Times Book Prize and was a finalist for NPR Best Book of the Year.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Mariana Enriquez, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Argentine author Mariana Enriquez’s book of short stories is set in modern-day Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Belgium. Enriquez, who grew up with Argentina’s Dirty War, and worked as a journalist, recalls the uncanny darkness by putting fantastical horror themes to her stories. With stories where a woman is sexually obsessed with a human heart or entire neighbourhoods are cursed to death, her work is described as chilling, raw, and merciless. She is often compared to Samantha Schweblin (whom McDowell has also translated), Shirley Jackson, and Jorges Luis Borges.
Enriquez has written two collections of short stories—the other collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, was also translated by McDowell and named The Best Book of the Year by The Boston Globe. Enriquez said in an interview that when she writes horror, she tries to make it Latin American: “To reimagine the subjects in accordance with our realities, to include indigenous mythologies, local urban legends, pagan saints, local murderers, the violence we live with, the social problems we suffer.”
While Enriquez recalls the horrors of the military dictatorship of Argentina where several people were made to disappear, she also touches upon universal themes of horror; a fear of spiders, male violence against women, death, and so on.
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
Labatut, who spent his childhood in Hague and Buenos Aires, is an award-winning writer. When We Cease to Understand the World is a work of fiction drawn from real events in the world of science. Labatut explores what happens at the edge of science, gesturing to a connection between madness and mathematical discovery. His work has been called dystopian – not the kind that is set in a far-off reality– but one that remains close to the present.
In this book, Einstein gets a letter that has the exact solution to the equations of general relativity, while Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg create opposing versions of quantum mechanics. All the geniuses who feature here can either bring unimaginable suffering to the world or revolutionise it for the better. In an interview with the Booker Prizes, Labatut said: “I was not merely interested in the outward development and impact of science, but on the personal cost of these strange epiphanies, and only fiction can delve into that particular void, the inside of the human mind.”
The Employees, Olga Ravn, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
This novel, as the name suggests, is about what it means to be an employee. Written as witness statements by a workplace commission, it follows the crew of Six Thousand Ship. Ravn, who is one of Denmark’s most celebrated contemporary authors, questions what it means to be human and what it is to feel. The ship takes on strange items from Planet New Discovery, and the crew gets slowly attached to them. The employees start to question what it means to truly live, and wonder whether their life can continue the way it has.
Ravn’s work is described as chilling and often uncomfortable. She has published acclaimed poetry, which is image-driven and sensual, and is known to bring her poetic sensibilities to fiction. Her work is compared to that of Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras because of how she evokes memories in her writing.
In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale
Poet Maria Stepanova, whose work is driven by voices and motifs that draw from cultures of the past and present, is a celebrated writer in Russia and the winner of several awards. This prose memoir is of her family history, which she wrote in the same apartment that she grew up in as a child. She tries to encapsulate the ordinary life of 20th century Russia, and reclaim the narrative of what constitutes the Russian existence.
Stepanova has said: “I felt bound to notice that my ancestors had made hardly any attempt to make themselves interesting…None of them had fought or been repressed or executed.” She attempts to build a scrapbook in her memoir, which contains extracts from letters, lists of items collected in different family homes, and uncovers multiple pasts. Towards the end, Stepanova writes: “Sometimes it seems like it is only possible to love the past if you know it is definitely never going to return.”
The War of the Poor, Éric Vuillard, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Vuillard is the award-winning author of The Order of the Day. This book is set in the sixteenth century, and shows the powerful class conflict during the German Peasants’ War. The Protestant Reformation, while attacking the privilege of the Catholic Church, existed in its own bubble of bourgeois comfort. Rural workers were promised equality in heaven, but they pushed for equality in the present.
Vuillard writes the story from the point of view of Thomas Münzter, a German preacher who leads the poor against the rulers. The plight of the poor is interspersed with Münzter’s fanaticism. The book, which spans less than a hundred pages, is lauded for its sharp and astounding prose, which exudes chilling relevance and literary density. Polizzotti, who has translated more than fifty books from French, also translated Vuillard’s The Order of the Day.
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