Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child is the frontrunner for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, but if it wins, it will have to beat out a longlist of some of the best translated fiction in the world, one that includes excellent novels by revered and award-winning writers like Marie NDiaye and Kenzaburō Ōe, alongside international up-and-comers like Eka Kurniawan and Fiston Mwanza Mujila. It should be said that the shortlist, announced yesterday, is among the most impressive in world literature, although the its gender imbalance among authors (if not translators) is still disappointing.
The 2016 edition of the prize is especially noteworthy because of its change in format. Last July, the Man Booker Prize announced that its biennial international edition would merge with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which would create an annual prize that awards a single book rather than an author’s entire oeuvre. The 2015 winner, László Krasznahorkai, won for his entire literary output, including the novels The Melancholy of Resistance and Seiobo There Below.
This year’s panel of five judges is now tasked with whittling down a longlist of 13 books to a shortlist of five, to be announced on April 14. The shortlisted authors and translators will each receive £1,000. On May 16, the Man Booker International Prize will announce its winning book. The author and translator of the work will be split a £50,000 award.
The 2016 Man Booker International prize longlist:
A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. Daniel Hahn (Angola)
This novel from one of Portugal’s greatest writers, the “literary trickster” Agualusa, was published in the states last December by Archipelago — so it may have slipped through the cracks. Still, it’s a favorite of the prize’s chair, Boyd Tonkin, who wrote that it “skitters across minefields with grace and poise.”
The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein (Italy)
This conclusion to the Neapolitan Quartet may not be the most revered novel of the four, but it’s still the favorite among the longlist. For those interested in the future of the prize, the gravity of Ferrante’s inclusion may warp expectations. In its first year as an award for a single book, in other words, the Man Booker International may go to Ferrante for the entire Quartet, which counts among the most impressive feats in contemporary literature.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang, trans. Deborah Smith (South Korea)
The dark horse of the prize, Kang’s The Vegetarian, published last month in the US, is growing in stature by the second. A novel that concerns, among many other things, sexual politics and the violence of consumption, it tells the story of a bland marriage that is irrevocably altered when a woman chooses to become a vegetarian.
Mend the Living, Maylis de Kerangal, trans. Jessica Moore (France)
Published in the US (by FSG) as The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living observes the classical unity of time: it tells the story of a heart transplant that takes place in under 24 hours. Given its author’s critical and popular momentum in France, it’s fair to say that she is a frontrunner for the prize.
Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan, trans Labodalih Sembiring (Indonesia)
My personal favorite on the longlist is Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a novel about an act of violence (and its strange fallout) in an Indonesian coastal village that seems as blazingly new as it is classically told. Unafraid of sex, politics, and brutality, Kurniawan, though relatively young, is establishing himself as one of the most surprising novelists in the world.
The Four Books, Yan Lianke , trans. Carlos Rojas (China)
Out of the censorial world of Chinese literature comes Yan Lianke’s The Four Books, a satire about how four characters — the Author, the Theologian, the Musician, and the Author (all overseen by the Child) — navigate the Maoist re-education camps during the Great Leap Forward.
Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, trans. Roland Glasser (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria)
A welcome surprise on the list, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83, published by the alarmingly good Deep Vellum (out of Dallas, Texas), excoriates neocolonialism with its vibrant cast and expertly translated rhythmic prose.
A Cup of Rage, Raduan Nassar, trans. Stefan Tobler (Brazil)
Originally published in Brazil in 1978, the impossibly short (47 pages) A Cup of Rage is impossibly huge in effect. The story of a sexual rendezvous that quickly becomes a nasty power play, it presaged the end of Nassar’s literary output — in 1984. It’s hard not to root for it.
Ladivine, Marie NDiaye, trans. Jordan Stump (France)
Though her work has been translated and published in the US, NDiaye’s true North American welcoming party will take place next month, when Knopf publishes Ladivine, a psychodrama about three generations of women. Deeply respected and admired in France, NDiaye’s work may come to elicit a Ferrante-level response once she is better known in the States. Or it may begin with this prize, for which she is a definite favorite.
Death by Water, Kenzaburō Ōe , trans. Deborah Boliner Boem (Japan)
The masterful (and Nobel-winning) Kenzaburō Ōe had his most recent novel, Death by Water, released in the US last October, obscured by far lesser works (about cities on fire). In many senses the most ambitious work on the longlist, it tells the story of a novelist’s attempt to make sense of history and loss through narrative art.
White Hunger, Aki Ollikainen, trans. Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah (Finland)
A debut novel about a famine that drives a family from Finland to St. Petersburg, White Hunger is maybe the least known (in the US) of the longlisted books. If the novel makes it to the shortlist, it would say something about the panel’s willingness to go against the grain of international popularity.
A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk, trans. Ekin Oklap (Turkey)
This paean to Istanbul, about a street vendor in love, is maybe not the best novel by Pamuk, the longlist’s second Nobel Prizewinner, but it still deserves its spot.
A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler, trans. Charlotte Collins (Austria)
This spare novel, about a man, Andreas, who lives in isolation in the Austrian Alps, is an understated work that has drawn comparisons to John Williams’ Stoner. It has resonated hugely with readers in Germany, where its author now lives.