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20 May 2024

The 2024 International Booker shortlist reviewed

From a Korean Scheherazade to Brazilian spirits, the grief of surviving a suicide to the magic of brief encounters.

By George Monaghan

On 21 May the International Booker Prize will be awarded to “the finest single work of fiction from around the world which has been translated into English”. The shortlist contains books from Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and Korea.

The Details, Ia Genberg’s third novel, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson, comprises four portraits, each of someone the narrator has known. We are told little about the unnamed narrator but each character seems to reveal something of her. The girlfriend in one portrait is not the narrator’s first, or last, or longest-term, but is included because her memory is the most powerfully felt. Likewise in the contents of the portraits, what matters are not impersonal measures like time “but magnitude… the concentrated mass of meaning”. Genberg attends closely to the book’s emotional heart, and we hear its throb like thunder.

“Going deeper requires a loss of control, requires the abandonment of that constant surveillance of time and space in exchange for a headlong fall inside oneself, or into somebody else, or down one of life’s many cracks and fissures.”

The narrator is thrillingly impressionable. It is remarkable how much of other people she lets in, and how much life and personality seems to flow through her. Her view is that our lives cannot be our own, that the self is no more than the traces of the people we rub up against, and that no relationship ever ends – because people change us forever. There are some who “blow through your life” and others with whom you keep “a bracing pact in the face of every new circumstance in our respective lives”. Reading it leaves you compelled to sprint to a restaurant, seize an outdoor table, and spend a whole evening and night in conversation with someone important:

“I’ve had more than my share of magic in life, most often in the encounter with others. There is something there, and only there. I can’t be more specific than that, can only say that if we’re searching we should look in each other.”

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***

Kairos, Jenny Erpenbeck’s fourth novel, translated from German by Michael Hofmann, compares unfortunately. Two people part: the first is careful not to take the other’s hand, and to say no more than, “Be seeing you”; the second walks off thinking about how he did not take her hand and said no more than, “Be seeing you.” The minds mirror each other too exactly. There are multiple instances like this, and each feels shallow. Later they walk: “It feels good to be walking beside him, she thinks. It feels good to be walking beside her, he thinks.”

The novel revolves around the 1986-89 Berlin love affair of this couple: the somewhat bombastic Katharina (of their first dinner, Erpenbeck writes, “this is the beginning of her life, for which everything so far has been mere preparation”) and the phenomenally unsexy Hans (“Callipygous, the word from a Thomas Mann story swims into his head, as he runs his hands down below her waist.”). I’m afraid to say they meet with: “And that’s when she saw him. And he saw her.” And that he sends her on holiday with:

“You should eat a salade niçoise while you’re in Cologne, says Hans, and think of me. Salade niçoise? Yes, with hard-boiled egg and tuna. Salade niçoise, with hard-boiled egg and tuna, muses Katharina.”

No speech marks, a “sparse” present tense – and, yes, there is indeed a cumbersomely cinematic cigarette to be negotiated every few pages. Not that the trappings of this familiar style ruin a book. They’d be OK were the story well delivered.

Sadly it’s not. The following progression, which aims to signal Katharina’s increasing ease at the table, is representative. First: “I’ll have my coffee black, without sugar, that way he’ll take me seriously.” More comfortable: “Nineteen, she says, and dips a sugar cube in her black coffee after all.” Yet more relaxed: “What makes you so sure, she says, and now helps herself to cream as well.”

The book is certainly not redeemed, as critics have suggested, by the inclusion of “history” around the Berlin Wall’s denouement, but the story does improve as it darkens. Hans becomes cruel and ridiculous, while Katharina grows worldlier and less interested.

***

What I’d Rather Not Think About is Jente Posthuma’s second novel, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey. One twin commits suicide, leaving the other alone. The pattern of the unhappy twin’s descent – the pursuit of comfort in a succession of eccentric gurus, partners and attitudes – is convincingly described, and the observation that suicides often have a lost period between the note being finished and the act being committed, and that this period becomes an abhorrent vacuum for the living, is very upsetting. But the novel does not fulfil the promise of its striking premise.

The style is modern and breathless. Paratactic declaratives clatter haphazardly, chapters average one and a half pages, the two central characters are never named; and don’t even ask about speech marks. There are too many histrionically “devastating” chapter endings (“And right before we fell asleep that night, he said: Today was another suicide-free day”) and too many of their inverse, the mid-banality profundity (“When my brother ended his own life, on May 6, 2016, we were thirty-five years old and had watched fifteen seasons of Survivor.”). Breathless becomes airless.

The images are often predictable. The Twin Towers and Josef Mengele’s experiments on twins in Auschwitz are duly referenced. The details of Mengele’s practises make you shudder; the laboured observation that people think the towers are the same height but they aren’t leads nowhere.

***

Itamar Vieira Junior’s Crooked Plow, his first novel, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz, is set in the sertão (which is a bit like Brazil’s equivalent of the Australian outback), on the tenancy farming plantation Água Negra. There are jaguars and snakes, sugarcane and cachaça, jatoba crêpes and rapadura candy, flowered mandacaru cacti in the shade of an umbu tree, but no mirrors or toilets or contraception, and little money or literacy; many children are dying and those alive sleep in a pile on single corn-husk mattresses. The novel contains desire, work, forgiveness and Jarê rituals in which people are possessed (“ridden”) by spirits called encantados. It is sweltering, colourful, loudly pronounced and spectacularly resourced.

Two sisters, Bibiana and Belonísia, find an old knife in their grandma’s belongings, and, while playing, Belonísia loses her tongue and so her speech. The story follows the two girls for a couple of decades. In the final, most exciting, section of the novel, Vieira Junior narrates from the perspective of one of the Jarê encantados, who describes how “I’d forgotten the power of riding a body; how good it was to immerse myself again in the rivers of blood, in the fire of a bosom pulsating with life, in clouded eyes, in desires and freedom.”

***

Not a River, Selva Almada’s third novel, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott, follows three men on a fishing trip in Argentina. There unfolds the story of their two days on an island they camp on, and of a similar trip they went on three years before.

Several moments – such as the tense encounters between male strangers – evoke Ernest Hemingway (particularly The Big Two-Hearted River), and in conveying a full sense of the island’s small community Almada echoes Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. The prose is memorable, as when a corpse is pulled from the water: “Potbellied, pregnant with the river, his open eyes seeking the light.”

There is quite a difference, however, between Almada’s exterior and interior work. The historic plotline is not very compelling, and the foreshadowing of a drowning with recurring nightmares of a monster called “the Drowner” has an overly literal quality.

***

Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae, might have been called Four-Hundred-and-One Korean Nights. Its Scheherazade is Yi Jino, who, as part of a labour dispute between workers and owners, is camping 45 metres in the air, on the catwalk of a factory chimney near Seoul. He uses some plastic bottles to pee in, but on others writes the names of friends and family. At night he takes a named bottle with him and steps out into the fog and the past.

Hwang conceived of the book when he visited North Korea in 1989 and heard an old resident speak in the accent of his (Hwang’s) Seoul neighbourhood. After pleading with his guides, Hwang was permitted to speak to the man and hear his life’s story. In Mater 2-10, Jino’s grandparents Geumi and Ilcheol have roughly the year of birth the old man would have had.

The book spans the years of Korea’s annexation by Japan and the life of a family within them. Jino thinks of Geumi: “To think that all of this had happened in this family’s lifetime. The years had been as rough as whirlpools, like water surging through a deep, winding ravine.” At 81, Hwang is by some distance the oldest author on the shortlist.

A long time is spent describing the cat-and-mouse dynamic of the officials vs organisers. We see too many clandestine meetings and safe-house relocations, and get too much of the logistics of communication systems, freight train profiteering methods, and informant networks. But the fresh moments burn brilliantly: for instance, how the streets “came to life in the evenings” as the children heard the sound of lunchboxes rattling on handlebars and went out to meet their fathers and brothers, or the chance uprising at a textile factory after a supervisor hits a worker’s mother.

There is an impressive sense of scale and breadth for a novel that opens with men defecating into plastic containers. The novel is populated by daring males: metal worker Jingi, fisherman then salt farmer Manny, industrial worker and activist Wuchang, policeman Daryeong, and above all the boy Little Clippers, whose short life is told in two enchanting pages that end: “It had taken Jino all this time to realise what a wild dream it had been. Imagine – getting your hands on everything you ever wanted!”

[See also: Paul Auster’s literary legacy]

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