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The Best of World Literature: The 2021 International Booker Prize Shortlist

recommended by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis

WINNER

At Night All Blood Is Black
by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis

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Every year the International Booker Prize judges read dozens of novels from around the world, which are newly translated into English. Here Lucy Hughes-Hallett—award-winning author and chair of this year's judging panel—talks us through the six books that made their 2021 shortlist of the best world literature.

Interview by Cal Flyn

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis

WINNER

At Night All Blood Is Black
by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Read
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The 2021 International Booker Prize will reward the best work of world literature newly translated into English. What do you look for in a translated novel—is it any different to what you look for in non-translated fiction?

I wouldn’t say so. What I want from fiction is to be surprised and moved. I want beautiful prose, exciting ideas, and to be led down new intellectual pathways. I want to be engaged emotionally. To be amused and entertained, or deeply upset, and perhaps both at once.

I don’t have any particular expectation of what, exactly, I want when I pick up a work of fiction. I think one of the things that’s so exciting about reading in general, and particularly about reading fiction, is the individuality of each good work that you come across.

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That’s equally true of translated fiction as it is of fiction in one’s own language. The difference is, of course, that sometimes you can be reading a translated work and thinking rather sadly that it is probably an excellent book, hidden behind the  veil of a less-good translation.

That’s right. The International Booker Prize is quite unusual in the way that it rewards the winning author and translator equally. But is it difficult as a reader to know where one role stops and the other begins? What marks a really great translation?

I think the mark of a really outstanding translation is that you almost immediately forget you are reading a translation. It’s a very difficult literary art, not at all simple. It’s self-effacing, modest. The best translators just disappear.

When you’re reading a not-quite-adequate translation, you’re looking at the text through a glass darkly, as it were. A perfect translation is completely transparent. It’s as though it doesn’t exist.

You read over 125 works of translated fiction during the judging process. Can you talk a little about how that process worked?

We met approximately once a month—although, sadly, we couldn’t meet face-to-face in this strange year—and read all the books in the same order because if we all turned up having read different books it wouldn’t work. So we went step-by-step, and discussed every single book very carefully.

As Chair, I felt that my main responsibility was to make sure that every book was given proper consideration. Each judge got the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say about each book. So each book was discussed pretty exhaustively, and each month we would be talking about somewhere between 20 and 25 books. So it’s a lot of reading!

We would lay aside the ones we felt weren’t contenders, and we kept a list of those under consideration, and kept revisiting that list. Because, to begin with, you don’t really have a sense of how high the standard is. As you read more, and you come across really outstanding, extraordinary books, the ones that just seemed pretty good are pushed aside. And at every stage there are regrets—we all had books that we loved that didn’t make the longlist.

I’m sure. Let’s talk about the books that did make it onto your 2021 shortlist of the best newly translated world literature. First we have At Night, All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis.

This book is frightening. Reading it, you feel you’re being hypnotised. Your emotions are set all a-jangle, and your mind is being opened up to new thoughts. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing—very powerful, very compelling.

It’s a novel narrated by a Senegalese soldier fighting for the French army in the trenches during the First World War. There were a lot of African soldiers—in the British Army too. It’s a tale of savagery, and the associations that word conjures up are examined from all sides. These soldiers are very young, adrift in a world that is completely unfamiliar to them, with people trying to kill them. They are being encouraged to be savage by their officers, because in a time of war that is what soldiers are required to be. But at the same time, gradually, the protagonist begins to find that, because he’s such a good soldier, he’s being viewed as a savage in a much more derogatory and unacceptable usage of the word.

“Translation is a very difficult literary art, not at all simple. It’s self-effacing, modest. The best translators just disappear”

It’s a story about war, yes. But also a story about love—both sexual love and the love of ‘more-than-brothers’, this very moving phrase which the speaker uses often about his childhood friend who’s killed at the opening of the story. That sense of comradeship‚ the deeply loving comradeship of fighting men, is very strongly evoked.

It’s also a story about language. The protagonist has really very little shared language with the French officers who are ordering him to kill and risk being killed. So it examines the barriers that have to be crossed when people from different cultures live and especially fight alongside each other. It’s a deeply upsetting book: angry and very sad. But it’s also exhilarating to read; it has an extraordinary kind of dark beauty. The author David Diop creates incantatory word music, and the translator Anna Moschovakis absolutely has managed to recreate it.

I would say that this is a piece of prose fiction that does what the best poetry does: it enters the readers consciousness at a level that bypasses rationality. It has a very beautiful surface, but there’s something extraordinarily powerful going on beneath that surface—something mind expanding and terrifying and revolutionary.

I’m interested in your comment about this being prose with poetic qualities. Because it echoes something that’s been noted of the 2021 shortlist more generally—that the shortlisted books very much stretch the definition of ‘fiction’, or play with the boundaries of it. Could you talk a little bit about the move away from the traditional, straight-forward novel?

Well, I love straight-forward novels! I’m a fan of Anthony Trollope. There was no decision to move away from anything, or towards anything—we simply chose the books by which we were most impressed. And those turned out, in the end, to be these six books, several of which are stepping outside the limitations of what you might think of as being a ‘traditional novel’.

Incidentally, the rubric for the prize doesn’t use that word, ‘novel’. It’s simply: ‘work of fiction.’ So that’s quite a wide definition. So we have a work of science fiction, a work of gothic horror, two works—by Vuillard and Labatut—which are, on the face of it, biographical, and we have Maria Stepanova. If you wanted to sum up her book in one word, you might call it a memoir. But all these books are transformed by the kind of magic of the author’s creative energy. The material might be that of ghost story, fantasy, or historical biography, but they are transfigured by the imagination and by the artistry with which they are written into works of literary art. I think that is what fiction is.

But I do think that it’s not just coincidence that several of the books on our shortlist are slightly outside the range of what we’re accustomed to when we think of novels. A lot of the most exciting writers today are the ones who are working in the borderlands between different genres. You can see the academic world scrambling to keep up with this, and dreaming up new labels like ‘creative nonfiction’ or ‘documentary fiction’, ‘autofiction’ and what-have-you. What these labels add up to, I think, is simply an acknowledgement that these very innovative, interesting writers are simply ignoring all labels and using whatever strategies are useful to them—borrowing techniques from earlier novelists, but also from science, or cinema, or history, or music. And why shouldn’t they?

Well, why not. Let’s move onto the second book on your 2021 shortlist of the best world literature: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell. This is a collection of short stories, and I really liked what the judges had to say about it, which was that it “fashions a magical realism, version 2.0.”

This is a collection of ghost stories. Enríquez uses the conventions of gothic horror and the macabre to write these brilliantly strange parables about the modern world. Her settings are detailed and concrete and realistic, mainly in Buenos Aires—she’s an Argentinian writer. She takes us into those settings, and we smell the smells, hear the roar of the traffic, see the streetlife. All the energy and human variety and dirt—lots of dirt—but with it a seductiveness and a kind of sexy vitality.

All of that is pretty much realist, but then weird things start to happen. This isn’t horror for the sake of the thrill. I think every one of Enríquez’s fantasies of the unreal is a penetrating comment on the real world. Her imaginary world is one where people disappear, or are disappeared, as they have really been in Argentina. It’s a world where a daughter must go mad in order that another daughter in the same family can be sane. It’s a world where unloved children vanish—abducted, trafficked, murdered —and when they miraculously reappear, their families reject them for a second time.

So these stories are very unsettling. But they’re also colourful and flamboyant, and sometimes disconcertingly funny, and always icily intelligent. They have the energy of ghosts that just won’t agree to be exorcised.

Mariana Enríquez, like a number of the authors on your shortlist, is highly garlanded in her home country. Do you, the 2021 judging panel, see your role to be bringing writers like her, and the best of world literature more generally, to a new, Anglophone audience?

Yes, I do. I mean, not for the writers’ sakes, but for ours. We, English-speaking readers, are so lucky to be given access to these amazing authors whom we don’t already know. We may be discovering them for the first time, but that’s a bit like Columbus ‘discovering’ America—it was always there. In the same way, most of these authors are already acclaimed in their home countries and cultures. So it’s not a question of conferring a favour on these already-great authors; I like to think that we judges are able to give English-speaking readers the great gift of being introduced to these amazing books.

The third book on the shortlist is When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. This is a good example of the boundary-pushing we were discussing earlier. The judging panel has described this book as “working on the edges of history, memoir, essay and fiction.’ Why did it stand out to you and your fellow judges?

You’re right that it has a very innovative form. It’s a series of linked pieces, each one part-essay, part-story, part-biographical account of great minds, geniuses, who—according to this account—seem always on the verge of collapsing into madness as they unlock the secrets of the universe.

It’s set in the 20th century, up until the present, and the book gently leads us in with the first essay—or story , or however we’re going to describe it—which is called ‘Prussian Blue.’ It’s about the invention of a dye, which leads on eventually to the invention of the poison used in the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps. Each further piece then seems to go further and further away from conventional nonfictional narrative—becoming more imaginative, strange, more compelling, more interesting, more emotionally charged.

“We, English-speaking readers, are so lucky to be given access to these amazing authors whom we don’t already know”

We are talking about great intellectual inventions. These people—people like Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Niels Bohr—they’re the great scientific thinkers of the 20th century. What they were doing was not so much scientific research as reimagining the world. And what Labatut is telling us, or what I took away from this book, is a new understanding that mathematics and physics, like language, are symbolic systems. And none of those systems are really capable of containing the strangeness of the actual substance, the matter, of the universe. All that a scientist can do, and all that a creative writer can do, when grappling with what Labatut calls “the dark heart” of the physical world, is create a kind of poetry. So that’s what the great minds were doing with their formulae. And that’s what Labatut himself has done in this dazzlingly clever book.

That really reminds me of something the evolutionary psychologist Chris Paley told me recently; he said that scientific advances are only “closer and closer approximations to the truth.” And I suppose these genre-bending books could be considered as bringing us closer to some essential truth too. 

There are a lot of books in this undefinable genre, an increasing number. Biography used to be so tedious, formally. However interesting its content was—and I’m going back two generations now—the biographer would start with the subject’s birth and go plodding through all the way to their death. But I think it’s generally recognised now that even when you are conveying information in a nonfiction work, you should try to engage the reader in the same way that a novelist does. You can use techniques like flashbacks and flashforwards, you can use pacing, points of view… all those things that are completely commonplace in fiction but have taken a while to be adopted by writers of nonfiction.

And as that has happened to nonfiction, I think there’s a kind of corresponding movement in writers of fiction. Novelists are looking towards the tremendous richness of material offered by history, or travel writing, or scientific understanding –  all the different ways you can think about reality – then using this as raw material for stories.

Thank you. Well, our next book brings us wholly into the realm of fiction once more. This is The Employees. It’s subtitled: ‘The Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century’, which gives us a flavour. It’s structured as a series of witness statements taken from the staff of a spaceship. Can you tell us more about it?

Well, its structure is extraordinary. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s as though we’ve raided the filing cabinet of the human resources department on a spaceship where half the workers are humans, and the other half are… I suppose robots, or artificial intelligences contained in humanoid bodies.

Each of these people, these spaceship dwellers, have been asked to report on their state of mind to the personnel department, and there’s this wonderful conjunction of fantasy with the most tedious aspects of office life and bureaucracy. It’s so funny. There’s something very witty about the way this book has been set up from the very beginning. The statements have been jumbled. So we get these reports out of numerical order, and we come to realise that’s probably because some terrible catastrophe has brought this story to its close. It’s formally inventive.

You have to immediately lay aside all your preconceptions about this kind of fiction. This isn’t ordinary sci fi. There’s absolutely nothing about rocket launchers in it. It’s a book about love, and nostalgia, and home, and parenthood. It’s about the natural world and mortality. All these big themes are contained within these reports, which are not so much reports as confessions, the kind of outpourings that someone might offer to their therapist.

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It’s a world in which the employees are being assessed according to their usefulness and efficiency. Are they good assets for the organisation that employs them? This is a deeply inhumane way of looking at human beings, or non-human beings. One of the very interesting things about it is that we are invited to respond emotionally to the non-human characters in pretty much the same way as we respond to the human ones. In other words, to open up our sense of who should be included in human sympathy.

And in this world, which is run according to standards of efficiency and the requirements of the personnel department, there is also space for wonder and tenderness. Those delicate emotions are all the more cherished for the fact that there is no place for them in the utilitarian vision that was the spaceship.

So I guess this is actually a deeply political book, about how workers are treated by their employers, and citizens by their governments. And it’s a reminder of what is lost when people are treated simply as a workforce. It’s also more than that… something very haunting and emotionally subtle. It’s a vision of the lovely delicacy of spirit of which humans are capable, and that political systems ignore at their cost.

I’m reading this book now and I love it. It’s so strange and intriguing. But won’t it be difficult to judge a work like this—one of fantasy—against other books, those ones that are borderline nonfiction? How do you compare books that are so different?

Great books, whatever their category or genre, are always unique. I think each of these books is so original, and has such an individual kind of creative energy, that it will be very difficult to choose between them. Not so much because of the difficulty of comparing unlike with unlike, but simply because they are all so very good. But I’m happy to say that there’s not a single book on this list that would not be a deserving winner.

I think what really jumps out about this shortlist is that all the authors have had very strong visions for these books; they take unusual forms, and I think that requires a lot of confidence and clarity as a writer. This is true, too, of the next book on the 2021 International Booker Prize shortlist of the best of world literature—Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory. It has aspects of memoir, building on her family history.

Yes. Maria Stepanova comes from a Russian Jewish family. She grew up in an apartment in Moscow, along with her parents, one grandmother, and two great grandmothers. So in a sense she grew up alongside her family’s past. One or other of the family’s members have been touched by many of the great catastrophes of the 20th century—the Russian Revolution, the subsequent civil war, Stalin’s purges, the Holocaust. But though they felt the shockwaves of those cataclysmic events, they were never at the centre of them, happily.

She writes about how interesting it is to turn your gaze away from the centre of great historical events, and see what’s happening to the people just outside of them. Her relatives escaped some of the horrors that might have befallen them, but were gradually dispersed all the same by something much quieter and more insidious. By time itself, which none of us can escape.

So this capacious, thoughtful, generous book becomes a kind of meditation on mortality. It’s a book full of sorrow and regret. But it’s also very funny. Stepanova has a wonderfully humorous way of looking at the pathos of the passing of life. It’s a very unusual approach, and it’s delightful to spend so much time—it’s a long book—in the company of an author who has such a wise spirit and such a well-furnished mind. She never says an obvious thing. Her opinions are carefully thought out, and often startling.

“Great books, whatever their category or genre, are always unique”

It’s structured as a multitude of short pieces or vignettes. Glimpses of her family past. Essays. Little stories. She travels in time and space, following her family around Europe. She goes from Odessa to Oxford High Street. She writes about Rembrandt, about Osip Mandelstam, about what it was like to be a female foreign medical student at the Sorbonne at the beginning of the 20th century, which is what one of her great-grandmothers did. So she looks wide, then sometimes focuses in very tightly. She describes photographs, quotes the letters that a boy soldier wrote to his parents—of course, he’s lying all the time, saying ‘I’m absolutely fine!’ even though we know he was starving and freezing to death. She’s searching behind the surface for the unspoken, the elusive truth. She’s very honest about what can’t be known.

There are so many books where the author sets off to explore their family’s past, but this one is unlike any other, I think. Part of that originality is Stepanova’s candour in admitting that actually you can’t bring the dead back to life. You can’t really know someone who’s gone. There’s sadness in that, but also something like relief.

The other thing about this book is that it’s so beautifully written. Both Stepanova and her translator, Sasha Dugdale, are poets. Stepanova’s English is very good, and I believe they worked together closely on the translation. Their attentiveness not only to conveying the meaning of the original, but also the rhythms of the prose, makes this book hauntingly beautiful.

That brings us to our final book on your 2021 shortlist highlighting the best of world literature. The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated by Mark Polizzotti. It’s only 80 pages long. You’re quoted in The Guardian as saying it “is, in a sense, a historical essay, but I have never read a work of history that had this kind of blazing imaginative energy.”

Well, this book just roars into action. From the first moment, you’re being swept away by the energy with which Vuillard writes. And his translator keeps up with him every step of the way.

It’s about Thomas Müntzer, who’s a little-remembered hero of the European religious reformation in the 16th century. He was a furious campaigner against the powers of church and state in a period when the church was a secular, as well as a sacred, power. He was the leader of a peasant uprising, one of the many that convulsed Europe at the time. The book is a polemic. It’s a sermon. It’s a kind of a cry of anguish about social injustice. It’s also a lyrically beautiful evocation of an era when for everyone, kings and peasants alike, life was charged with the ecstatic, terrifying sense that heaven and hell were close at hand.

Münzter was a great orator, a great rabble rouser. Vuillard conjures all his persuasive brilliance, but also his selfless and self-destructive rage. This is a kind of fictionalised biography, charged with electrical imaginative power. It’s thrillingly energetic and vivid. But it’s also a work of historical reconstruction. It speaks very loudly and with terrifying clarity about the inequalities of not just the society in which Müntzer lived, but the society in which we live now.

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It’s an easy book to read, in one sense; it’s written in rapid, idiomatic prose. We are carried off by its blazing energy into a world of violence and sacrifice, mud and blood, and rapturous religious visions. But it’s also a book that really gets inside your mind and gets you thinking. A small book that packs a tremendous punch.

Wonderful. We look forward to learning who the winners are. To close, I’d like to ask a very practical question. You said you were reading and discussing 20 or 25 books a month. This seems incredible! How does one go about reading so quickly and deeply?  

There’s not much good to be said of living through an international pandemic, but for us having no distractions was helpful. If you can’t go out, settling down on a sofa with a masterpiece which could be from anywhere around the world is going to open your mind to places you can’t or haven’t visited. So it’s been a privilege, the most thrilling winter. Without getting out, I’ve had so many adventures.

Part of our best books of 2021 series.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the chair of the 2021 International Booker Prize judging panel, is a cultural historian and novelist. Her book on Gabriele d’Annunzio, The Pike, won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize, The Costa Biography of the Year Ward and the Political Book Awards Biography of the Year. The Pike was recently picked by The Sunday Times as ‘the biography of the decade’.  She has also written the cultural histories Cleopatra and Heroes, and the novel Peculiar Ground. Her latest book is Fabulous, a collection of short stories set in modern Britain but based on ancient myth. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association.

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Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the chair of the 2021 International Booker Prize judging panel, is a cultural historian and novelist. Her book on Gabriele d’Annunzio, The Pike, won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize, The Costa Biography of the Year Ward and the Political Book Awards Biography of the Year. The Pike was recently picked by The Sunday Times as ‘the biography of the decade’.  She has also written the cultural histories Cleopatra and Heroes, and the novel Peculiar Ground. Her latest book is Fabulous, a collection of short stories set in modern Britain but based on ancient myth. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association.