Through fiction, British boarding schools and American gym classes have been exported around the world. But what about stories from rural Poland, or the Norwegian coast, or Chinese mega-cities? For readers interested in books from beyond the English language, the prestigious Man Booker International Prize has some recommendations.
The prize’s longlist was announced on March 15, and the award will be shared between authors and their translators. To be eligible, the books must have been written in a foreign language, translated into English, be available in the UK, and not self-published. Last year’s list included Japanese icon Kenzaburō Ōe, Italian sensation Elena Ferrante, and Turkish legend Orhan Pamuk. The winners were Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian, about a woman whose slow mental devolution begins with her decision to stop eating meat.
This year’s jury nominated 13 books, including The Explosion Chronicles, by China’s Yan Lianke, and Judas, by Israeli luminary Amos Oz. Three female authors appear on the list. See it in full below.
by Mathias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Franz Ritter is an insomniac who studies Europe’s fascination with music from the Middle East. In the novel he mixes dreams and memories of his past travels and an unrequited love. Kirkus calls it “a fever-dream meditation on East and West,” and Publisher’s Weekly says it’s an “opium addict’s dream of a novel.” The novel won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in 2015.
Swallowing Mercury (Poland)
by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello Books)
In the village of Hektary in 1970s-80s Poland, Wiola is endowed with superstition and fables. The women around her call their periods “the blood-relation from America,” and her mother says killing spiders bring storms. “It is refreshing to find a fiction writer so free of stylistic pomp, so and finely attuned to the truth of her material, a novel so sensually saturated,” says the Guardian of the bildungsroman. Greg is a poet, and Swallowing Mercury is her fiction debut.
A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Israel)
by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape)
Stand-up comic Dov Greenstein is doing a set in Netanya, Israel, and it’s not going great. The novel, narrated by his friend, takes place over his two-hour set as Dov recounts stories from his 57 years. “…The story feels urgent, and the reader can almost imagine being trapped in the comedy club with the increasingly confused audience,” says NPR. “…There is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of a comic’s sweat,” writes Gary Shteyngart.
War and Turpentine (Belgium)
by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay (Harvill Secker)
Urbain Martien, son of a poor Flemish working-class mural painter, was a war hero in World War I. He was also the real-life grandfather of Hertmans, an acclaimed poet, who based his novel about Martien’s legacy on his notebooks. “This serious and dignified book is old-fashioned…in the pleasant sense that it seems built to last,” writes Dwight Garner.
The Unseen (Norway)
by Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose)
Ingrid Barrøy lives on an island on the western Norwegian coast with her family, an island that contains their history and hopes. When she grows up, Ingrid is forced to move to the mainland to work, transitioning from the hard, stoic sea life to the wealthy and cosmopolitan. The Irish Times praises the book’s “humour as well as stark, unsentimental pathos.”
The Traitor’s Niche (Albania)
by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker)
In early 19th-century Ottoman Empire, Albania is trying to gain independence again. Tundj Hata, imperial deliveryman, is tasked with rounding up the heads of troublemakers, like the Albanian pasha, Black Ali. “A fable while also a portrait of subjugation,” according to the Financial Times,” the book was originally published in Albania 40 years ago and is now available in English for the first time. Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005.
Fish Have No Feet (Iceland)
by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated by Phil Roughton (MacLehose)
In a town called Keflavik, “the darkest place in Iceland,” three generations of a former fishing family have watched history pass. Ari returns from Copenhagen to Keflavik’s black lava fields to visit his dying father and reflect on his youth. “Stefánsson makes palpable the remove that Icelanders feel from the rest of the world,” says the Irish Times, “For though his characters come and go, they are drawn home to the isolation of this peculiar landscape.”
The Explosion Chronicles (China)
by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas (Chatto & Windus)
Explosion, formerly a village in China, is now rapidly expanding into a mega-city. As the four Kong brothers contend with other families to hold power over Explosion, corruption and fraud ensue. “In magic-realist fashion, the moral chaos is horrifyingly reflected in the dysfunction of nature,” writes The New York Times. Lianke’s The Four Books was on last year’s longlist.
Black Moses (France)
by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (Serpent’s Tail)
Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, or to many, simply Moses, is an orphan who navigates Pointe-Noire in the 1970s and ’80s. Mabanckou is described as “a novelist of exuberant originality” by the Guardian and was shortlisted for the prize in 2015.
Bricks and Mortar (Germany)
by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
In fictionalized Leipzig in East Germany, the sex industry evolves from before 1989 to present day. A multitude of voices tells the story of the changing trade. “This novel, harking back to a more fragmented, divided Europe, couldn’t be more topical when the EU is under serious threat from within,” says the publisher.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Denmark)
by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press)
Sonja is a translator of Swedish crime into Danish, a woman learning to drive and be newly single. “The prose swoops and soars like her yearned-for whooper swans,” says The Guardian of Nors’s “bracingly unclassifiable fiction.”
by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto & Windus)
Shmuel Ash, in 1959 Jerusalem, is a biblical scholar with alternate readings of Judas and the Crucifixion. He falls in love with Atalia, the daughter of a Jewish leader who proposed Israel and Palestine share a stateless land. The “paradox of stillness and provocation,” according to The Washington Post, asks what it means to be a traitor. Oz was nominated for the prize in 2007.
Fever Dream (Argentina)
by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)
In a rural clinic in Argentina, a dying Amanda answers questions from David about mysterious worms. The short, enigmatic novel has caused great unease with its readers. “A low, sick thrill took hold of me as I read it,” writes Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker. She adds that the novel has “a design at once so enigmatic and so disciplined that the book feels as if it belongs to a new literary genre altogether.”
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