From the Guadeloupian novelist Maryse Condé to the French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, a world-spanning shortlist for the Man Booker International prize will offer readers “an extraordinary variety of experiences”, according to chair of judges Marina Warner.
Announced on 24 March at the University of Cape Town, the 10-strong shortlist for the prestigious £60,000 award features eight writers in translation, and a new lineup of contenders, none of whom have previously been finalists for the prize. Six of the nationalities represented on the shortlist have never been included before: Mia Couto is the first author from Mozambique to make the final cut; Ibrahim Al-Koni the first from Libya; Condé the first from Guadeloupe; László Krasznahorkai the first from Hungary; Marlene van Niekerk the first from South Africa; and Mabanckou the first from Congo-Brazzaville.
India’s Amitav Ghosh is arguably the best-known writer internationally to make the shortlist, which is completed with Lebanon’s Hoda Barakat, Argentina’s César Aira and US poet and writer Fanny Howe.
Karl Ove Knausgaard – feted and disparaged in equal parts in his native Norway, and now an enormous success in translation – was one big name to miss out on a place on the shortlist, as was the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Bookmaker Paddy Power had given Harper Lee odds of 6/1 to win the prize, after it was announced that her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, would be released later this year, but judges will not yet have seen Lee’s forthcoming work.
Awarded to a living author who has published fiction originally in English, or whose work is “generally” available in translation in English, the biennial Man Booker International prize has previously been won by North American writers three successive times: American short-story writer Lydia Davis was triumphant in 2013; American novelist Philip Roth in 2011 (somewhat controversially, after judge Carmen Callil resigned from the panel in protest at the decision); and the Canadian short story writer (and subsequent Nobel laureate) Alice Munro in 2009. The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe won in 2007, and the Albanian writerIsmail Kadare in 2005.
Academic and writer Marina Warner said the panel had “had an exhilarating experience reading for this prize”. She added: “We have ranged across the world and entered the vision of writers who offer an extraordinary variety of experiences.”
Warner echoed the sentiments of William Fiennes, chair of the Folio prize, who spoke earlier this year of how the novel is still “refreshing itself, reaching out for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do”. She said: “Fiction can enlarge the world for us all, and stretch our understanding and our sympathy.”
“The novel today is in fine form: as a field of inquiry, a tribunal of history, a map of the heart, a probe of the psyche, a stimulus to thought, a well of pleasure and a laboratory of language,” she added. “Truly, we feel closer to the tree of knowledge.”
Jonathan Taylor, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, praised a “most interesting and enlightening list of finalists”, and added: “It brings attention to writers from far and wide, so many of whom are in translation. As a result, our reading lists will surely be hugely expanded.”
New York Review Classics editorial director Edwin Frank, who joined Warner on the judging panel, admitted the judges had faced serious quantities of reading over the last year.
“It would be pretentious to say we wanted to survey the world, but we wanted to be mindful of the wider world of literature,” he said. “For me, I’ve learned all sorts of things about authors I’d never read... especially in Arabic literature, which is still woefully underrepresented in English. And we’ve various writers from Africa, writing in very different languages and literary traditions.”
Frank said he was “passionately concerned” with encouraging translation of literature into English. “This [judging process] has widened all our experiences on the panel, and happily so,” he said. “But I think this is a good moment, a better moment, for the life of books in translation in English. There are lots of small presses, in the UK and the US, such as And Other Stories, beginning to widen our horizons.”
The Man Booker International prize is awarded every two years to honour a writer’s “achievement in fiction”. Authors cannot be put forward by their publishers; instead, the judging panel, with the help of an informal advisory network made up of past judges and winners, choose the top title.
As well as Warner and Frank, this year’s panel features the novelist Nadeem Aslam, the writer and University of Oxford English professor Elleke Boehmer, and SOAS professor of Arabic and comparative literature Wen-chin Ouyang.
“It’s heartening to see such a genuinely international list,” commented cultural journalist and critic Maya Jaggi. “Apart from Amitav Ghosh, many of these names may be unfamiliar to general readers in English. Yet most are towering figures in regional literatures - from Ibrahim al-Koni’s starkly beautiful desert fables in Arabic to Maryse Conde’s Caribbean classics in French. It’s good to see writers who are pushing the boundaries of their languages, as well as serious comedy, represented - in the playful and savage satires of Alain Mabanckou in French andMarlene van Niekerk in Africaans.”
If a writer in translation wins the prize, the winner – to be announced on 19 May in London – can choose a translator of their work into English to receive an additional award of £15,000.
The Man Booker International prize shortlist
• César Aira (Argentina)
• Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
• Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
• Mia Couto (Mozambique)
• Amitav Ghosh (India)
• Fanny Howe (US)
• Ibrahim Al-Koni (Libya)
• László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
• Alain Mabanckou (The Republic of the Congo)
• Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa)