The 2023 International Booker prize shortlist: review — John Self


Clockwise from top left: Guadalupe Nettel, GauZ’, Maryse Condé, Cheon Myeong-kwan, Eva Baltasar, Georgi Gospodinov
The Observer

The International Booker prize is the UK’s most prestigious award for translated fiction, with previous winners including Han Kang and Olga Tokarczuk. The prize money of £50,000 is divided equally between author and translator. This year’s winner will be announced on 23 May and the judging panel have produced a strong shortlist with a distinctive flavour: four brightly coloured, zestful novels and two, more restrained stories on the theme of motherhood.

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Europa Editions, £14.99), is the South Korean author’s debut novel, first published in 2004. It’s an anarchic, often gruesome book – death by anvil, fire in a crowded theatre, a gangster who woos his beloved by sending her severed fingers – that succeeds through sheer charm. Central to his story is Geumbok, an ambitious young woman who dreams of building a cinema, and her daughter, Chunhui, a tall, muscular brick-maker. There’s so much going on that almost every subsection of each chapter could be a novella in itself, filled with old crones, physical grotesques and cartoonish violence. It’s not always easy to see whether the creaky descriptions of women – Geumbok’s “exceptionally wide rump”, Chunhui being “fat and unattractive, so unlike her mother” – are a satire of sexist attitudes or an enactment of them (Cheong cites Updike and Bukowski as key influences). Still, it is never, ever boring, even if the relentlessness is occasionally exhausting.

Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov’s third novel, Time Shelter, translated by Angela Rodel (W&N, £9.99), is equally ebullient and well stocked: it opens with 11 epigraphs, and feels like half-essay, half-novel, connecting cultural artefacts from The Magic Mountain to Auden’s September 1, 1939. The central figure is Gaustine, a sort of time traveller who opens a clinic devoted to periods of the past, to help people with Alzheimer’s. The idea takes off, and eventually European nations are voting to return to earlier eras (the 1980s is popular, as much for Dirty Dancing as for the Velvet Revolution). But below the antic exterior this is a serious book and a very strong contender, about “the innocent monster of the past” and how excessive devotion to it will lock us out of a more hopeful future.

Standing Heavy, the first novel by Côte d’Ivoire author and journalist GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press, £12), shares the exuberance of Whale and Time Shelter, but is tighter and leaner. Undocumented immigrants to France from Côte d’Ivoire are hired as retail security guards because “Black men are scary”. Their job consists of “paid standing”, which gives plenty of time for memories and reflections, both serious – on slavery, modern capitalism, 9/11 and African history – and frivolous, such as how English and French shoppers say “Sephora” differently. The guards must listen to 120 terrible songs on the store radio every six hours: “Truly, the shift break is one of the greatest achievements negotiated by trade unions.” Funny, provocative and eye-opening, this, by a nose, is my pick for the prize.

Below the antic exterior this is a strong book about how devotion to the past will lock us out of a more hopeful future

By contrast, Catalan writer Eva Baltasar’s second novel, Boulder, translated by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, £11.99), is largely humourless, unless you count the overwrought similes in this tale of passion between a former ship’s chef (Boulder) and her lover, Samsa. “She straddles me, breasts thrust up at the night like coastlines”; “Fucking her with a strap-on is like waking up summer and drowning it in its own swelter.” They settle in Iceland, where Samsa declares she wants a baby. Boulder reluctantly agrees, and the book turns to the struggles of imminent parenthood, both emotional (“if only you could set fire to every word that evokes an illness”) and existential: for Boulder, “motherhood is […] the mark that impedes freedom”. This was my least favourite title on the shortlist, though there’s no denying its sharp intensity.

Similarly focused on the ambiguities of motherhood is French-Mexican novelist Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel, Still Born, translated by Rosalind Harvey (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99). Mexican Laura is not just non-maternal (“I turned up at my gynaecologist’s office […] and asked him to tie my tubes”) but anti-maternal: she feels “crushed” when her best friend, Alina, wants to get pregnant. “From now on there would be an invisible rift between us.” Alina’s baby fails to develop in the womb (“she would be a lump if she lived”, offers one doctor, brutally), and the book opens up aspects of motherhood, as Alina struggles with her decision and Laura takes an interest in a neighbour’s child. The result can be dramatic and moving, though the muted palette of its prose makes it feel pale next to some of the vibrant storytelling elsewhere on the shortlist.

Maryse Condé, who was born in Guadeloupe and writes in French, is the oldest author ever to be shortlisted for the prize, and has said that The Gospel According to the New World, translated by Richard Philcox (World Editions, £13.99), will be her final novel. If so, she’s going out with characteristic energy and style. Central to the story, set in Martinique, is adopted orphan Pascal, a beautiful daydreamer who is believed to be a new saviour: “Our Father perhaps had two sons.” The story offers winking parallels to Jesus’s life – sick boy Lazare, a friend named Judas – while pursuing threads on inequality and colonial history. “My country is small,” Pascal says. “Some will tell you that nothing much happens there.” On the contrary, if the novel has a fault it’s that too much happens too quickly, but it’s highly entertaining.

Source: The Guardian 

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