Views from Elsewhere

Reading the Booker Prize Finalists
The shortlist for the 2020 Booker International Prize.

The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. It is the most prestigious prize of its kind. This year the shortlist of six was announced in April, and the prize will be announced and awarded at the end of August. The prize money, £50,000 ($62,000), is divided equally between the author and the translator

Estimates vary, but it’s probable that less than 5 percent of all books published in English in the United States this year will have been translated from some other language. The top three source-languages in recent years have been French, German, and Spanish, and that will almost certainly be the case this year, too. If books translated from those three languages are excluded, then the proportion will likely be less than 1 percent. During the past decade, the number of fictional works translated into English and published in the United States each year has rarely exceeded five hundred, while the total number written in English usually hovers around 50,000. That, too, yields a 1 percent ratio.

The upshot is that more than 95 percent of the words fiction readers in the United States read were composed in English. This is extreme insularity: we are, evidently, not much interested in fiction written in other languages. That’s a sad state of affairs, especially when standards of literary translation are as high as they are now, and when—in addition to the instructiveness for citizens of a declining world empire like the United States of reading fiction written in other languages and other places—there’s enormous pleasure to be had from it.           

Reading the six novels on this year’s International Booker shortlist is at least a corrective to insularity. Two of them were written in Spanish, and one each in Dutch, Farsi, German, and Japanese. The worlds of these novels are still more varied: Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, following the revolution that replaced Reza Pahlavi with Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 (Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree); the Argentinean pampas of the nineteenth century (Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron); central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War (Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll); contemporary Mexico under narcoterrorism (Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season); an almost-no-place—perhaps an island off Japan—in an indeterminate time (Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police); and the rural Netherlands in the years spanning the turn of the millennium (Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening).

The writers are also at different stages of their careers. The two best established are Kehlmann and Ogawa, both of whom have published many novels, had several translated into English and other languages, and have received major literary awards in their home countries (Germany and Japan, respectively). Ogawa, in particular, has received most of Japan’s literary prizes. Of these two, Kehlmann is the better known in the Anglophone world: two of his plays have been performed in English in London, one of his novels has been filmed, and Tyll is in production as a series for Netflix. Cámara is widely read in Argentina and throughout Latin America. She writes in many genres (novel, novella, graphic novel, short story, essay), and China Iron is the second of her novels to be published in English. Azar, Melchor, and Rijneveld are less established; their shortlisted novels are their first to be translated into English.

Since the International Booker is a prize as much for translators (may their names be praised and their numbers multiply) as for authors, and since I’ve read these novels only in their English versions, they should be mentioned too. Without exception, the English of these books reads both beautifully and distinctively. A definite voice emerges from each, most clearly in the case of Michele Hutchinson’s rendering of Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, in which the first-person narrator is a girl from the ages of ten to twelve, and in the case of the anonymous translator’s fabulist-magical version of Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Sophie Hughes’s torrential sentences in her translation of Melchor’s Hurricane Season, many of them several hundred words long, are a breathless delight. And Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh’s version of Cámara’s China Iron is a fluidly dreamy wonder, especially in its third act handling of the melding of Spanish and Guarani (an indigenous South American language). Stephen Snyder, in translating Ogawa’s Memory Police, and Ross Benjamin, in rendering Kehlmann’s Tyll, may have had fewer technical problems to deal with, and fewer idiosyncrasies of voice; but what each of them writes is no less a pleasure to read at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. Snyder’s The Memory Police, in particular, is in a dispassionate plain style of which Orwell would have approved.

 

Shokoofeh Azar, author of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (Europa Editions, $18, 256 pp.) was born in Iran and lived there until 2011. She then became a political refugee in Australia, where she still lives. She served several prison terms in Iran because of the Iranian régime’s dislike of her work as a journalist in the 1990s and 2000s. Greengage Tree is her first and so far only novel. The book is set in Iran between the late 1980s until about 2010, shifting back and forth from Tehran to a small village in the country’s north. The protagonists are a family of five: parents, two daughters, and a son. The narrator, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes behind the scenes, is the younger daughter, speaking as a ghost from beyond the grave—she has died young, burned to death, a victim of the outflow of the 1979 revolution. The story is about the various tribulations brought upon this family by the revolution. Things do not go well for them.

Greengage Tree is through-and-through magical, and its tone is that of a fable. Not only is the younger daughter a ghost; the older one turns into a mermaid halfway through the book. Jinns and their jinxes are a constant presence; black snow falls for over a hundred days in the village to which the family flees from the depredations of militant Shi’a activists; there are magical healings and animals and amulets. The brass tacks of birth, copulation, and death are very much present, but they’re so interpenetrated by dream, longing, and intervention by nonhuman agents that they appear backlit and fuzzy. Much of the book, perhaps as much as a quarter of it, is taken up with stories only tangentially related to the main plot. Azar weaves all this together with skill and energy, and she seems as much saturated by classical Persian fable and myth as by twentieth-century Latin American magical realism.

Fables are, in the end, didactic: they want to teach you something more than to show you something.

Fables are, in the end, didactic: they want to teach you something more than to show you something. They also tend to be dualistic: there are forces of evil and forces of good in them. These are not nuanced and they do not overlap. Each is there to extinguish the other, if it can, and it’s no accident that there are several approving nods in the book to Zoroastrianism, Persia’s pre-Muslim religion, which has the idea of just such a conflict at its heart. The evil force of Greengage Tree is Islam, and its villains are Muslims. Islam, personified by Ruhollah Khomeini and by the paramilitary Basiji, burns books and slaughters wantonly. Its representatives come to a bad end in the book, and Khomeini’s own end is depicted with special fabulist relish: he dies of fear, pissing his pants, lost in a hall of mirrors. Greengage Tree’s good force is its beloved family. They are avatars and acolytes of books and writing, of culture and conversation—“The first and last of the family’s hereditary manias was a mania for reading”—and Azar’s novel is crammed with references to the books of many languages and cultures. In the world of Greengage Tree, the fabulist imagination is what gives life meaning, and Islam is its enemy. This conflict gives the book its power, but also turns it into a tract.

There is a delicious irony for an American reading Greengage Tree in 2020, in the world made by #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. Azar’s novel celebrates the importance of unrestricted access to books, and among the many romances her narrator has read and been formed by is that of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. These characters belong to a book that has lately been “canceled” in this country, a book to be banned if not burned. The world of Azar’s Greengage Tree would place #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo on the side of Khomeini, and thereby cast them into outer darkness. Things can look very different from elsewhere, and seeing this is one of the benefits of reading books from elsewhere.

 

Gabriela Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron (Charco Press, $15.95, 188 pp.) is something very different: an Argentinian road trip without roads into a pastoral paradise. Cámara was born in 1968 in Buenos Aires. Her first novel, La Virgen Cabeza (2009), was published in English in 2017 as Slum Virgin. She has been a writer-in-residence at Berkeley, and so has a good understanding of the literary and academic scene in the United States; she is also an active campaigner, both on and off the page, against human trafficking and in support of various feminist causes.

China Iron follows the life of China Josephina Star Iron. The scene is Argentina in perhaps the 1860s, and the book’s literary conversation partner is José Hernández’s epic picaresque poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro, which was published in two parts in 1872 and 1879. That poem has served Argentina as Virgil’s Aeneid served classical Rome: as an apologia for the country, celebrating the myth of the gaucho in support of Argentina’s independence from Spain. Cámara turns Martín Fierro on its head. China Iron hardly figures in Hernández’s poem; Cámara has lifted her out of that story and given her a story of her own while at the same time satirizing both Hernández’s poem and himself as its author, presenting him as a drunken and violent martinet.

The book has three acts. The first, “Pampas,” details China’s taking up with Liz, an immigrant to Argentina from Scotland who is seeking her husband, Oscar. China has happily been abandoned by her own husband, Martín Fierro, and has decided to leave behind being someone’s “china”—that is, someone’s woman. She still doesn’t quite know what she wants to be instead. Liz is literate and well read; China is neither, but her curiosity and energy are what drive the book’s first act. She soaks up language, history, and geography, transfiguring it all as she takes it in and returning it improved.

The second act, “The Fort,” is one of torture and discipline: China and Liz arrive at Hernández’s estancia, see what horrors a hierarchical and militaristic social order, coupled with plantation-style agriculture, can produce, and become lovers there, perhaps in response to what they see. China and Liz eventually leave the fort and light out for Indian Territory where, in the book’s third act, they find Liz’s Oscar and China’s Martín, who is better than she remembers. They also find a dream life of rafts, rivers, and camps—a way of living in which the rigid scripts that usually order the lives of men and women are no longer important. China finds an Indian lover, but that doesn’t prevent her from also loving Liz, Martín, and others.

It might seem that China Iron is a straightforward parable of the rejection of rigidity in favor of fluidity, the fort in favor of the river, marriage in favor of pansexuality, and oppression in favor of liberty. It is all those things, but not didactically. One of the book’s many delights is the way it subverts the Argentinian national myth of the gaucho, which is in many ways like that of the cowboy in the United States. The gaucho myth is transfigured but not simply rejected. There’s no dualism here, as in Greengage Tree. Martín Fierro, the archetypal poet-gaucho, is still a gaucho when China eventually catches up with him, but he is now also poetically polyamorous. A tract would have made him the unambiguous villain, a man who “wins” China in a game of cards, beats her, and leaves her. With such a man there’s nothing to be done but consign him to the outer darkness. But even the gaucho-script can be rewritten, and it’s such rewritings that China Iron treats.

The book is a dream to read: an idyll in its third act, a blood-soaked beauty in its second, and a shape-shifter throughout. The world into which it draws the reader is one where nonhuman creatures (dogs, cattle, horses, birds, fish, trees, grass) are multifarious and strange. On the pampas, boundaries are porous and identities merge. The counterpoint is with the England and Scotland Liz describes. The English, she tells China, have been “forcibly condemned to insularity,” and have as a result organized the world around themselves, “being the motor, market, and matrix of all nations.” But even here Cámara is no tractarian. England’s tea and Scotland’s whisky are celebrated, as is what Liz teaches China. No Manichean dualism here, but rather a fluid, floating world where Catholic readers should be comfortable, knowing that our scripted ethnic, sexual, racial, and cultural identities have been subsumed into and decentered by Jesus.

 

Daniel Kehlmann, born in 1975, is a citizen of Germany and Austria with deep connections to the United States; he has taught at New York University since 2015 and been a fellow of the New York Public Library from 2016 to 2017. His shortlisted novel, Tyll (Pantheon, $26.95, 352 pp.), shares with his earlier novel, Measuring the World, an interest in using the past to show something important about the present. Measuring treated the nineteenth-century enterprise of mapping the world; Tyll transplants stories about the (possibly) fourteenth-century trickster Tyll Eulenspiegel to the seventeenth-century Europe of the Thirty Years’ War.

Tyll’s life (but not his death: he repudiates death and perhaps cannot die) provides the spine of Kehlmann’s book, even though Tyll is present in fewer than half of its pages. Tyll’s father is a half-educated, miller-magician-healer, hanged for witchcraft after being tortured. By the time this happens, Tyll has already begun learning the trade of a traveling wonder-worker—juggling, tightrope walking, ventriloquism, sleight of hand, people-reading, and more. He’s impelled to learn better and faster because of his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal of his father, also under torture. By the time he’s a young man, Tyll has become a virtuoso and is, for most who encounter him, a worker of genuine magic.

Tyll’s last name, Eulenspiegel, can be rendered “owl-mirror,” and that meaning is helpful in understanding how he figures in the novel. He reflects, like a mirror, the wisdom of the world back to itself, and shows that wisdom to be folly, vice, and violence. He gives Elizabeth—daughter of James I of England, wife of the Elector Palatine, and briefly Queen of Bohemia—a blank canvas, with instructions to have it framed and to hang it in her throne room. Tyll tells her she should inform visitors that the stupid, the violent, the corrupt, and the vicious won’t be able to see what’s painted there, which is a beautiful woman on a balcony with an angel behind her. And so, everyone who looks at the canvas is put into a dilemma. The blank canvas—a version of the emperor’s new clothes—exposes human fear and duplicity. And that, in brief, is what Tyll does throughout the novel.

Kehlmann uses Tyll as what Alfred Hitchcock liked to call a MacGuffin: a device to make things happen that is itself empty and so need not be given substantive attention. Tyll shows people what they are like, but readers do not learn much about what he is like, and it would detract from Tyll’s satirical effect if they did. The scorched earth of the Thirty Years’ War—destroyed farms, looted abbeys, endless and pointless military campaigns—serves as an appropriate backdrop for the petty and violent springs of human action Tyll reveals. It’s a grim picture, but there is the occasional trace of glory: the land is beautiful even in its devastation; music can ravish even in the midst of triviality and violence; and Tyll’s performances, high-wire acrobatics, juggling, and gait are graceful. The world of Tyll is custom-designed for Netflix (costume drama, war, magic, folly, sex, with a charismatic absence at the center), but it is also one a Catholic can recognize; it’s the fallen and therefore devastated world, stained everywhere with folly and death. In the end, though, it’s also a tiring and tiresome world. I admire Kehlmann’s vivid prose and virtuoso scene-writing, but I was glad to reach the end of this book. I already know that humans are fools (not least myself), and it is exhausting to be shown our folly at length, especially by a trickster who is not himself especially interesting. Tyll is neither a fabulist tract nor a pastoral dream-vision. It’s something slicker, and perhaps more cynical.

 

The real mystery at the heart of this novel is why things are as they are. And to that question, it provides no answer, only a description

The Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor was born in 1972. Hurricane Season (New Directions, $16.49, 224 pp.), her second novel, is really a season in hell. Its setting is La Matosa, a tiny village of tin-roofed shacks in Mexico, perhaps in Veracruz. The time is approximately the present. Everyone who lives in La Matosa is desperately poor and without good work; many are drug-addicted, violent, despairing, sick, and hungry. The two local powers are The Company, a multinational oil corporation, and the narcos, who lurk in tricked-out trucks, sell drugs, and occasionally torture and kill.

The book’s central event is the murder of a mysterious and charismatic figure, The Witch, a healer, abortionist, transvestite, transsexual, and dancer. Though mostly offstage, The Witch is the story’s mysterious center, the tear in its dark curtain of filth and desperation, through which what light there is shines fitfully onto the scene. The Witch’s murder is shown, Rashomon-like, from a number of perspectives and temporal angles: as it’s prepared for, as it’s done, in its aftermath, and through the eyes of its perpetrators, its unwilling accomplices, and its mourners. The book is a mystery only in that the full picture of The Witch’s murder emerges slowly. But the real mystery at the heart of this novel is why things are as they are. And to that question, it provides no answer, only a description: this is how it is, this is what the devastation we all live in is like—a desert of desperation and death, punctuated by hurricanes.

There is, however, light in this darkness. Some of it is provided by the book’s prose. Melchor’s sentences, as translated by Hughes, are often hundreds of words long, shifting in and out of free indirect speech, first-person direct address, and more distant, semi-omniscient observation. It’s a powerful, virtuosic way of writing. The book’s prose shapes ugliness with beauty, and that shaping is evident in the book’s events and characters as well. Luismi, a young drug addict, has “a voice so beautiful, so intense, so amazingly pure” that those who hear it know there’s something better and more beautiful than what they find in La Matosa.

The world of Hurricane Season is hard to look at. Nothing in it is free from violence, hatred, disappointment, and death. But there is beauty in it, too, and the occasional cool breath of hope. I’d like to consider Melchor a Catholic writer, even though the Church is barely evident in Hurricane Season. Like Cámara, Melchor writes the world that is. There’s none of the fabulized Manicheism one finds in Azar’s Greengage Tree, and not a trace of Kehlmann’s cleverness.

 

The Memory Police (Pantheon, $16, 288 pp.) is an early work by Yoko Ogawa, first published in 1994, the year she turned thirty-two. Much of her recent work has been published in English, notably the short novel Hotel Iris, and the stories in Revenge and The Diving Pool. The hallmarks of Ogawa’s later work are already evident in The Memory Police: the slow accumulation of small and precise details; a calm, low-key style, in which the most dramatic events are represented in the same register as the most quotidian; a sense of isolation and distance, fostered by settings with clear boundaries—hotels, islands, ships. Ogawa-land is distinctive: it is a place in which both the fictional characters and the reader are distanced from their own lives. The greatest stylistic contrast in the current International Booker shortlist is between the coolness of Ogawa and the radiant heat of Melchor.

The Memory Police’s central theme is the dissolution of both the self and its world. Its protagonist is a novelist, even though she knows that “few people here have any need for novels.” The novel she’s working on is about a typist who falls in love with her typing instructor only to lose her voice, with the result that she can communicate with him only by typing. The Memory Police contains substantial extracts from this story, and they show the progressive dissolution of its author. Similarly, The Memory Police shows its own narrator being reduced to nothing, and the principal interest of the book lies in the device that Ogawa uses to show that reduction.

The landscape of Memory Police is an island off the coast of some unnamed country, perhaps Japan. The time of the book’s action is not clearly signaled; its technology and mores are approximately those of rural Japan at the time of the book’s writing, but it scarcely matters: it’s a place out of time. On this island, memories of particular categories of things are slowly but progressively vanishing. Those memories might be of nonhuman living things (birds, roses, beans), artifacts (boats, books, hats), or parts of the human body (legs, arms, noses). When, for instance, the memory of roses vanishes, the locals wake up with the sense that something has vanished from the world, and that their memory of that thing is also fading, but they’re not yet sure what it is that’s vanished. In the case of the roses, the locals realize what they’ve lost when they see the river that runs through the town blanketed with rose petals fallen from the carefully cultivated rose bushes that had been growing in the town’s garden. The narrator remarks that within a day of the roses disappearing, she’s already unable to remember what a rose looked or smelled like.

And so it goes. Boats, after they’re gone, aren’t recognizable as things that might float on water, but only as things you might live in, or decorate, or take apart. This might seem difficult to make plausible, but Ogawa succeeds admirably in doing so. She shows the intimacy between our sense of what there is in the world and our capacity to sort things into kinds. Without the sortals rose or boat or book, there aren’t such things in the world. These things emerge from the world for children as they learn the categories, and so they vanish for those who forget those same categories. It’s this process of vanishing and forgetting that Ogawa depicts with convincing care.

Although Memory Police offers an excellent phenomenology of forgetting, it isn’t a philosophical treatise. Rather, it’s a story of loss—of the stripping-away of a world. Jacques, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, says of old age that it’s a second childhood, “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.” Ogawa shows what this is like, with particular reference to the memory-world. But I’m not sure that this book is a lament for loss. The novel-within-the-novel ends with its narrator likening her approaching end to “a typewriter key falling back into place after rising for a moment to strike the page.” And the novel itself ends with its protagonist, now only a voice, saying, “I continued to disappear.” It’s possible to read Memory Police as endorsing, rather than lamenting, this gradual disappearance.

Ogawa’s novel returns to me with a frequency that none of the others on the International Booker shortlist do, and I think that’s because it appears to me as a harbinger of the peace, the quietus, at which the Christian life aims.

 

Although Memory Police offers an excellent phenomenology of forgetting, it isn’t a philosophical treatise. Rather, it’s a story of loss—of the stripping-away of a world.

Marieke Rijneveld was twenty-six when The Discomfort of Evening (Graywolf Press, $16, 296 pp.) was published in the Netherlands in 2018. The book has been widely read and commented on in Europe since then, and is currently being translated into a dozen or so languages. The English translation has been available in the United Kingdom since 2019 and will be released in this country next month.

The landscape of Discomfort is a small family farm in the rural Netherlands. The central players are a family of six—parents, two sons, and two daughters. The family’s life is hard: there’s the unremitting work of farming, coupled with the pressure of poverty. It’s made harder by the death of the older son in a skating accident. It is also a life framed and ordered by Christianity, in this case a fairly severe version of Dutch Reformed Christianity—broadly Calvinist and rigorist in its application to even the smallest aspects of everyday life. The family attends church often, prays often, and receives home visits from the congregation’s elders, who are there to make sure that all is as it should be.

The novel’s first-person narrator and protagonist is Jas, the older of the two daughters, who is ten when the book opens and twelve when it closes. The thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other characters are shown only as they appear to her. This method requires making the words on the page credible to readers as those of a young girl, and in this the book is very effective. There were only a few occasions when I was jarred enough by a formulation (“everything that requires secrecy here is accepted in silence”; “some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves”) to remember that the words I was reading were written by a twenty-something recalling and imagining the consciousness of a preteen.

The book is also very strong in its rendering of the sensory feel of the world. Smells, tastes, and sights are depicted with a sharp and sometimes uncomfortable intensity. Still stronger, and still less comfortable, is the empty, fear-laced despair at the book’s heart. This spreads like black ink soaking into porous paper, until by the book’s end it’s all there is: a single stain, opaque and unremovable. Jas has been partly undone by her brother’s death: she fears that her parents will soon die, and she imagines scenarios that will bring this about; she cannot love God, and no longer wants to talk to the God her church teaches her about; she is puzzled by her own desires, and by the treatment of her flesh by others, especially her father; there are, she imagines, Jews hidden in the basement (she’s read about Anne Frank) who will be killed, but who in the meantime must be fed; and she wants to flee, to escape it all, but can see no way to do so even though she obsessively plans it. There is no exit.

It’s a testament, I suppose, to the book’s literary power, to the convincingness of its claustral atmosphere, that closing it felt like a liberation. But its denouement, which I won’t reveal, is both predetermined and melodramatic—a literary and artistic failure, as well as an imaginative one.

Like Melchor’s Hurricane Season, The Discomfort of Evening is a season in hell. Both show how damaged the world is. Children are raped and abused and tortured; there is violence everywhere, and despair couching always at the door. But Rijneveld’s depiction of these truths is without exit and almost without anything else, an image of what the world would be like if Azar’s forces of darkness had been victorious—nothing but an Ayatollah stumbling toward death in a mirror-lined room, books burning outside, the Jews in the cellar awaiting execution. That exitless world is not the Christian world. In fact, it is not anyone’s world: it is finally uninhabitable.

 

I read these books and wrote these words during the first half of July, more than a month before I knew which book had received the prize. If it were up to me, I’d give it to Ogawa without a moment’s thought: her work is distinctive and profound to a degree and in a way true of none of the others. But I predict that the Booker Committee will award the prize to Rijneveld, whose work and person check many of the boxes of importance to the Anglophone literary world at the moment: Rijneveld is young, publicly gender-fluid, and Discomfort shows a kind of violent abuse—of a girl—for which we are now eager to repent. And if sheer aesthetic pleasure is the criterion, then I got more of that from Cámara than from any of the others. But whichever of these books wins, each of them provokes wonder and gratitude that human creatures are capable of such things.

Paul J. Griffiths, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, is the author of several books, including Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, and, most recently, Christian Flesh (Stanford University Press).

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