Fiction » Best Fiction of 2022

The Best of World Literature: The 2022 International Booker Prize Shortlist

recommended by Frank Wynne

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

winner of the 2022 international booker prize

Tomb of Sand
by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

Read

The International Booker Prize celebrates the best fiction in translation published over the previous year. Frank Wynne, acclaimed translator and chair of the 2022 judging panel, tells Five Books about the six novels that made the shortlist, and reminds readers that world literature need not be tough, consumed only in the interests of self-improvement—but is often joyful, surprising and full of feeling.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

winner of the 2022 international booker prize

Tomb of Sand
by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell

Read

Each year, the International Booker Prize is awarded to the best work of fiction newly translated into English. The 2022 shortlist offers a great entry point for readers interested in world literature. Could you talk us through what you, as judges, have been looking for—do you judge a work of translated fiction any differently to a non-translated book?

I have a very open and broad sense of what fiction can do. I like it to surprise or thrill or unsettle or disturb, but all of those things can be done regardless of whether the book was originally written in English.

There’s a terrible tendency to hive off literature in translation, to think of it as some sort of cod liver oil that’s supposed to be good for you. But it can be just as brilliant and wonderful and funny and as brightening as the best of literature written in English. It can also be dull and mediocre, or a terrible potboiler. It’s not as though people writing in other languages only produce great fulfilling works of literature. But, given that perhaps only a couple of hundred of books by living authors are translated into English each year, there is obviously quite a lot of pre-selection made by editors and publishers so what we get to read tends towards the more literary end of publishing.

“There’s a tendency to think of fiction in translation as some sort of cod liver oil, something ‘good for you’”

But no, as somebody setting off on the reading journey, what I want from a novel in translation is what I would want from any book, which is for it to move or surprise me. If it is formally inventive, that’s fine, but I don’t think it has to be. Another of my bugbears is this assumption that literature is a rising tide—that we are at the apex of something. That there has been realism, then modernism, then post-modernism, then post-structuralism, or whatever. But actually, when we think of the ‘history of literature’, this is not what other people in other countries see as the history of literature. There’s no reason they should have followed along with whatever little experiments we were doing in the 19th or 20th centuries. They have their own culture and ways of telling things, and their own forms of experimentation.

So I try to be as non-proscriptive as possible in my reading life. I don’t have much truck with the notion of ‘high culture’/‘low culture’—you know, that ‘this is only a thriller’ or ‘only science fiction’. Some of the greatest works of the 20th century written in English were thrillers, from Raymond Chandler to Patricia Highsmith, or science fiction, from Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Łem to Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood—one of the finest writers of our generation, most of whose novels are speculative fiction—yet speaks more to the world than many so-called realistic novels.

Yes, I think this open-mindedness comes through when you look at the incredible variety of writing that has made the shortlist. How many books did you consider for this year’s prize?

137, although one was found to be ineligible (published in the wrong year) and another was withdrawn, because publication was postponed. So: 135 books in the end.

The winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize for the best work of fiction in translation is Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from the original Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

This is an extraordinary piece of fiction, but also an extraordinary piece of metafiction. It’s a novel of Partition, which is obviously a genre within from the Indian subcontinent. And at the same time, it is also none of these things, it is sui generis. It’s an extraordinarily joyful and playful and funny book, despite the fact that it begins with an 80-year-old woman who has lost her husband retiring to bed for months on end, turning to the wall and refusing to engage with life.

Even in those opening chapters, everything around her is alive. I don’t simply mean ‘living’, ‘breathing’, I mean even the inanimate objects, and the way in which the story tells itself, it’s all enormously alive.

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She encounters Rosie, a hijra—one of the third gender people of the subcontinent—and from their encounter she suddenly regains a new sense of life. She’s almost like a teenager again, and she’s moved in with her daughter, who finds her mother disappearing for days on end and flitting about the place like a teenager. Eventually, it deals with her travelling to Pakistan.

What’s extraordinary about this book is the way in which it encompasses so many themes, and uses a style that is endlessly surprising. We do not have access to the original text, but it’s quite clear that there is an enormous amount of wordplay, punning and humour, an awful lot of onomatopoeia, cadence, rhythm – you don’t need to be a translator to realise that these elements are very difficult to carry across. At some level, the translate has no choice but to entirely recreate the humour, the rhythm, the wordplay in the target language.

Yes, I’ve read that this novel was considered very difficult or even impossible to translate, until Daisy Rockwell succeeded. Could you talk a little about this creative role of the translator?

Well, I think that any translator worth his or her salt will reject the idea that anything is impossible to translate. Or rather: at a theoretical level, everything is impossible to translate, so it’s just a question of how to render the impossible. As J.M. Singe said, “A translation is no translation unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it”. Translation is not simply or straightforwardly about the meaning of words. Meaning is crucial to all translations, but even the translation of very standard conversation involves rhythm and cadence.

There may be cultural references that are clear to the original reader but may not be clear to the target reader; you need to make a decision as to whether you need to gloss the reference, or simply leave it there and allow the reader to do the work, look it up, or whatever.

If there is a hilariously funny passage in the original, it’s your job as a translator to make sure it’s hilariously funny in translation, and that will frequently mean changing every single word, because the chance that the same words will have the same effect in a different language is almost nil—even when they are related languages.

In a more general sense, the process of translation involves giving voice to the voice you hear when reading the original text. That voice has a tone, it has a register, it has a particular cadence. If the text involves polyphony, the translator needs to be attuned to each of those voices. In Tomb of Sand, there are lots of sections that play on the very nature of Hindi as a language, that Daisy has needed to recreate to play on the nature of a language that is not Hindi.

“At a theoretical level, everything is impossible to translate, so it’s just a question of how to render the impossible”

People have this sense that certain things that are ‘impossible to translate’. Well, no word is impossible to translate. But it may take more than one word in one language to translate a word from another. We have borrowed the German word Schadenfreude, for example, because we happen to like it and there is no single word in English to describe the feeling. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know what it means. It’s the same thing with the Portuguese saudade, which is something like nostalgia or homesickness, but it has a particular resonance and emotional meaning within Portuguese. That doesn’t mean you can’t explain it.

Translation, of fiction particularly but of any form of literature, is the recreation of the whole, and within that the translator may use different techniques to recreate the voice they hear on the page. If they do so successfully, then it has been translated.

I mean, Finnegans Wake contains more neologisms in it than there are commonly used words in the English language, and the roots of those various neologisms come from a dozen different languages, most of which Joyce has some familiarity with. The entire book is a single sentence that loops back on itself, it is wilfully experimental in style, the plot, such as it is, is nebulous and involves the incestuous dreams of a sleeping landlord dreaming about Irish history and his incestuous desire for young girls. Everything about suggests it should untranslatable—both in linguistic and cultural terms.

But Finnegans Wake has been translated into Chinese not once, but twice. Translators found linguistic ways around the problem. And while Joyce was heavily involved in the original translation into French, this did not prevent a later generation of translators from attempting it again in the belief that they could do something different. I wouldn’t say a better, but different.

Fascinating, yes. Okay, walk us through the five other works of fiction in translation that made it onto the 2022 shortlist. First up, we have Cursed Bunny, by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur.

Cursed Bunny was one of three collections of short stories that were on the longlist, and is the only collection of short stories to make the shortlist. It’s extraordinary.

I did an interview with a Korean journalist who asked why we chose this book when it’s genre fiction. They said ‘we don’t take such things seriously in Korea.’ As we discussed earlier, we don’t really take these things seriously in the Anglophone world, either, but we should. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, was sufficiently important that the great poet Charles Baudelaire translated them into French. He didn’t do that because the thought they were minor pieces of genre fiction, he thought that the way in which Poe used imagery and language was not only crucial, but entirely chimed with the poetry he was writing in the mid-19th century.

What’s extraordinary about Bora Chung’s stories is that, on the surface, they are horror stories that brush the boundaries of science fiction—they all have fantastical elements—but they are very much rooted in human emotion, in fear and need and love and want. So they speak as directly to the human experience as anything else, in the same way as do David Cronenberg’s stories, or Iain M Banks. What’s amazing about them is not simply the extraordinary imagination that gives rise to them as works of fantasy, but the humanity in which they are grounded, and which makes them stick in your mind long after you read them. The experience of reading them is profoundly and viscerally affecting and moving.

So, yes, she’s an extraordinary talent and Anton did an exemplary piece of work. Because so often in a collection of short stories there will be a range of styles and voices which can be very different, and may call upon you to be grave or sinister but at other points to be funny or facetious, and he handled all of that very well.

That’s great. It’s a book that hadn’t been on my radar at all, so I’m grateful to the judges for bringing it to wider attention. Shall we turn to Jon Fosse’s A New Name: Septology VI to VII? It was translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls. It’s the final installment in a sequence that features two doppelgängers.

Well, we’re never specifically told they are doppelgängers, although the reader is at liberty to believe that this is true. It tells the story of two men, both artists, with very similar names—the same letters arranged slightly differently. Both have been married to women with similar names, and both live in the same fictional town in Norway.

They know each other, but their career paths have been very different. One has been a very successful artist, his life has been as successful as it could have been. He lost his wife—she died—but they stayed together, loved each other, and so on. He has had enormous fulfilment from his work. The other has had a fractured relationship with his wife and his artistic career has not been successful. So, yes, many people think of them as doppelgängers, of the book as a single life as it might have been lived twice over.

But actually, the Septology as a whole, and A New Name in particular, is an extraordinary meditation on art and love, and the possibility of eternity. Each of the individual sections in the book is a single sentence. Those sentences have an incantatory feel to them. There is a lot of repetition, a lot of repeated images, repeated sections. It has an extraordinary hypnotic quality. Frequently, the reader will shift from being inside the mind of character A to character B and it will take a moment before you realise it, but that’s entirely deliberate.

Damion Searls learned Norwegian specifically so that he could translate Jon Fosse. He previously read his work in German, and was so taken with it that he decided to learn Norwegian himself to translate the books.

Wow.

I can completely understand this. The prose is luminous. It’s like swimming in an open sea. You can’t see land in any direction. You aren’t trying to. You have no frame of reference as to where you are. You are simply here, and must deal with the waves as they come. It’s a reading experience unlike anything else I’ve come across in the last several years, and an extraordinary meditation on human mortality and human endeavour, what we do with our lives, what we don’t do, what we may regret, what we may invest ourselves in—in terms of our art or whatever it is.

This is a quiet book that nonetheless encompasses pretty much all human existence. It’s as vast in its scope as Tomb of Sand, but completely different in as much as lots of things happen in Tomb of Sand—or lots of things have happened in its past—and it is bright and chirpy and noisy, whereas A New Name and the rest of Fosse’s Septology is closer to Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, a forty-voice motet that moves sinuously, slowly and beautifully. And every time you listen to it, you find greater depths within.

Yes, ‘slow literature,’ I like it. But it also sounds quite challenging, is that fair?

I suppose it is challenging. I mean, you pick up books because you hope to be engaged by them. I think anyone prepared to give the Septology an hour of their time will have by then made a decision as to whether or not they wish to continue. You simply have to let yourself go.

I remember a few years ago being told that Anna Burns’s Milkman was challenging. Well, not if you come from Ireland, I thought.

I remember. And, actually, it wasn’t difficult once I had got my eye in, so to speak.

People said the same thing about Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. But as long as you read it with a Cork accent, you know, it makes perfect sense.

I don’t agree with this notion that books are either, you know, complicated or uncomplicated. There are books that are deceptively simple. Look at the work of Annie Ernaux, for example, or Patrick Modiano, people would say they have a simple and accessible style. But actually, I think both are writers of great profundity and depth, who use a pared-down style in a very specific way. I worry about readers afraid of digressions and run-on sentences – how do they cope with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a character who isn’t born until about page 300 of the novel in which he is the protagonist?

Reading isn’t like taking a test. You shouldn’t go into it thinking, ‘is it going to be easy or hard?’ You’re not going to be asked questions at the end of it, you go in for the experience of reading. The Septology is very different from most of what you will read, but that’s equally true of Tomb of Sand, just in terms of how it uses voice. But I found the Septology compulsively readable. I think stopping and wondering at what’s happening is to miss the point. This is a river flowing, and you flow with it.

That’s a great way to think about it. I have a friend who publishes experimental poetry. He gave me a collection once with the instruction that I must ‘take it at a gallop’. That seems wise to me—you’ve got to keep the momentum up.

Absolutely. Some people will look at a dense block of text and think ‘this will be difficult to read’, but find the voice within the novel and follow it, and you might suddenly find that it is wonderful. Or you might not. But if you think of fiction as something that have specific rules —that it should have a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, or that it should be written in delimited sentences, or that it the dialogue must be marked off in inverted commas or whatever— you’re limiting what you’re going to be doing.

When people talk about post-modernism now, I say, well, how different is 20th century post-modernism to the second volume of Don Quixote—the first novel written in a European language—where you have Don Quixote speaking directly to camera, so to speak—a long time before cameras were invented. He’s reading the second volume of Don Quixote, written by someone else, and complaining about what we might call copyright, though that’s not been invented yet. It has many of the trope of what we call postmodernism, but it was written 300 years before modernism!

Very good. Perhaps that brings us to Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. It’s from the author of the international bestseller Breasts and Eggs. Why is this one of the best works of fiction in translation of 2022?

Heaven is a very short, deeply claustrophobic novel of two children in what Americans would call middle school—what we’d call early secondary school—who, for different reasons, are bullied by their peers. Eventually they get to know each other. The girl sends the boy a note and they meet up where nobody can see them and they talk about how they can or should deal with what they are experiencing.

The bullying scenes are not particularly explicit, but they are some of the most frightening things I’ve ever read. For anyone who has been bullied, you will feel yourself back in that space—barely able to breathe, wondering what you are going to do, how you are going to get out of there.

The girl feels they are actually better and stronger because they have been bullied, because their suffering must amount to something, must create something. The boy is less convinced, he feels that to endure, to survive. Is enough. It’s a delicate book that is also, in its way, incredibly savage. The sense of pain and suffering in it is at some times overwhelming. But the girl’s extraordinary intellect and defiance, and the boy’s attempts to survive the humiliations of his peers, are beautifully rendered. But these 230 pages act as a a tiny capsule, taking you back to the time you felt at your most vulnerable, and felt that no one was going to come and save you.

It must be very difficult for you as judges to compare a slim and punchy book like this to the Fosse Septology, say, or The Books of Jacob, which we will get to shortly. Isn’t there a sense of comparing apples and oranges?

Yes. As I’ve said before, it’s not comparing apples and oranges, it’s comparing apples and washing machines. Frequently fiction is not simply a different kind of fruit, it’s a different type of thing altogether. Literary prizes, by their very nature, are a subjective act of will by a group of people trying to communicate their enthusiasm for books that have moved and challenged and stimulated them. Of course, they cannot be compared to two runners in a race. They are not two chocolate cakes. Because decisions about what ingredients to use, what recipe to use, and whether or not to make a cake at all have been made by the author, and then remade entirely by the translator. So, of course, you are not comparing like with like.

What you’re saying is: this is why I desperately want so many other people to read this book. Longlists and shortlists allow a jury to say this about a range of books, then eventually and reluctantly and regretfully and sometimes tearfully they have to make the decision as to which of those books they want to save most of their enthusiasm for.

But apart from the fact that there are words on paper, superficially, there is not a lot that connects Heaven and Elena Knows and A New Name and Tomb of Sand and The Books of Jacob. They are doing astonishingly different things.

Yes, let’s talk about The Books of Jacob. It’s from the recent Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. It’s the story of Jacob Frank, a self-proclaimed messiah in 18th-century Poland, and his followers, who he encouraged to break taboos and commit all kinds of heresies. It was translated by Jennifer Croft.

Unlike Heaven, this book is attempting to embrace an entire world and culture, a particular period in Poland and Eastern Europe, and fold it into everything that can be known. It is a maximalist novel in that sense. There’s the theology of it, but also how market garden towns worked, how peasants lived, what beliefs people had and how those were challenged or changed.

Both The Books of Jacob and A New Name are dealing with the numinous, a sense of God. But Jacob Frank is an apostate, he’s someone who is prepared to overturn centuries of his own religion in an attempt to create something new. Thanks to Olga—through Jenny—we get to witness this vast pageant of what it means to have lived through that time in Poland. It’s like a very, very large Bayeux Tapestry. But also, what it is to look back on that, given what we know now, because there are outside observers. One common character in The Books of Jacob is Yenta, who should have been long dead by the end of the book, but is still a sort of ghostly presence in a cave at the end of the Second World War.

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So when you spoke about comparison, no, we’re not really comparing the shortlisted books, because books do not strive to do the same thing, and the tools they use can be hugely different. I mean, there is an extraordinary erudition and a vast amount of research in The Books of Jacob and Tomb of Sand which are neither present or necessary in Heaven or Elena Knows. But that doesn’t make it a better book. What makes these great books is the experience of being caught up in reading, how the reader responds to the characters, and also how they are written.

 The Books of Jacob is a panopticon, an epic whereas Heaven and Elena Knows take place over a short period and are bounded by a small number of characters; two in the case of Heaven, and in Elena Knows, by one.

Could you tell us more about Elena Knows? It’s a novel by the Argentine writer Claudia Piñeiro, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle.

Elena Knows is a day in the life of a woman with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Technically it’s a crime novel, a thriller—of sorts. It’s about a woman whose daughter has died recently, and wrapped up by the police who have said that it’s a straightforward suicide. But Elena knows that it’s not, because she knows that her daughter would never have gone near the church when it was raining, because she was terrified of lightening, and there was a lightning rod on the church, and so on, and so on.

But actually, Elena Knows is an extraordinarily beautiful and harrowing description of ageing and disability. Everything that happens in it happens to the rhythm of the pills she needs to take, every time she needs to stop and sit down, to pause on her way to get to the metro or the church. So, in fact, as a book, it is much closer to something like Elizabeth is Missing or Olive Kitteridge than a crime novel.

Piñeiro is best known as a crime novelist, but her writing has had a lot of recognition for its literary merit.

She has an extraordinary humanity. The focus is absolutely on these people, what they feel, and their frailty and weakness. It is as compelling a novel about age and illness and doubt and love as I think I have ever read.

I suppose the thing that all the books on the shortlist do share is a fascination with boundaries and borders. What happens if you cross them, what happens if you don’t. Whether those are physical borders; the borders set down by the rules of the theology in The Books of Jacob; in Cursed Bunny, the borders are human skin; in Heaven, we’re looking at the power structure within a school—it’s quite deliberately used by Kawakami to mirror the power structures of states and governments, and how people police each other. There is a sense in which what Kawakami is doing is enacting a sort of Nietzschean approach to how people police each other.

In Tomb of Sands, there are the physical borders that now separate India from Pakistan, though not when Ma was a young girl. There are also the boundaries of gender, and between life and death, also the ways in which roles impose boundaries on us—the roles of mother and daughter being inverted.

So there is, I suppose, something that ties these books together. The experience of reading each one of them is singular. And while you are reading them, you are not thinking about how they compare to other things, you are simply there: in the moment.

Quite right. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Never forget the longlist. So many sacrifices were made for us to get from the longlist to the shortlist. I don’t want to single out individual books, but the thirteen books that made up the original longlist encompass an extraordinary wealth in what fiction can do and how it plays out.

Part of our best books of 2022 series.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Frank Wynne

Frank Wynne

Frank Wynne is an Irish literary translator from French and Spanish. Over a career spanning more than twenty years, he has translated a wide variety of authors, including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Emiliano Monge, Alice Zeniter and Virginie Despentes. His translations have garnered a number of award, including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2002) and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005). He has twice been awarded both the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from the French and the Premio Valle Inclán for translation from Spanish. Most recently, his translation of Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo won the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize.

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Frank Wynne

Frank Wynne

Frank Wynne is an Irish literary translator from French and Spanish. Over a career spanning more than twenty years, he has translated a wide variety of authors, including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Emiliano Monge, Alice Zeniter and Virginie Despentes. His translations have garnered a number of award, including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2002) and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005). He has twice been awarded both the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation from the French and the Premio Valle Inclán for translation from Spanish. Most recently, his translation of Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo won the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize.