I was too frazzled to make a post about the longlist shortly after the announcement, what with the list being released at midnight Tuesday 12th / Wednesday 13th. (Having slept badly the night before, I was usefully tired enough to sleep c. 6.30-11.45pm) Immediately afterwards, I was doing forum/Goodreads (GR) admin such as starting a series of threads featuring cover pics and blurbs. A couple of days' online conversation has now given time for thoughts to percolate, and to make this post more than another copy+paste of the longlist. (Thanks very much to everyone whose comments I've bounced these thoughts off; quite a lot of this post is rephrased from my own comments elsewhere.)
The longlisted books
Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), tr. Marilyn Booth, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press Ltd)
Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), tr. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Love In The New Millennium (Yale University Press)
Annie Ernaux (French / French), tr. Alison L. Strayer, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), tr. Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk (Scribe UK)
Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), tr. Jonathan Wright, Jokes For The Gunmen (Granta, Portobello Books)
Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), tr. Sam Taylor, Four Soldiers (Granta, Portobello Books)
Marion Poschmann (German / German), tr. Jen Calleja, The Pine Islands (Profile Books, Serpent's Tail)
Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), tr. Megan McDowell, Mouthful Of Birds (Oneworld)
Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner, The Faculty Of Dreams (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), tr. Anne McLean, The Shape Of The Ruins (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), tr. Sam Garrett, The Death Of Murat Idrissi (Scribe UK)
Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean), tr. Sophie Hughes, The Remainder (And Other Stories)
(The first set of brackets shows language of original book/author nationality).
My reaction to this longlist
I have a cycle of feelings about book-prize longlists. In the preceding months or weeks, I get excited about the forthcoming list and join conversations about it. Then the list is announced, which *never* contains as many of the books I wanted to read, or have read, as I hoped it would. It's a lot like getting a Christmas present of socks, or bath products you don't usually use. Over the following weeks, there are more discussions, and become acclimatised to the list as I read from it. (The socks are actually quite useful and comfortable, and the bath products can be used or sold for money.) For me, this lit-prize business is at least as much about the social aspect as about the books themselves.
Via compiling the Goodreads list of MBI eligible books, all of the longlisted titles and covers were familiar to me apart from Celestial Bodies. (At some point I'd looked at Sandstone's website, didn't see any translated fiction, assumed they didn't publish it, and failed to check again - although I did with many other similar publishers' sites. Doh!) There are a few titles I hoped not to see - but I'd acclimatised to that by making myself a list a few weeks ago of about 20 books I didn't want to be longlisted and looking at it a few times.
I'm delighted to see The Years on here. I've been slowly reading this over the last couple of weeks (savouring it and looking up references) and it's the only 2019-MBI eligible book I've read that I love *and* which feels like it has the buzz of greatness about it. (I loved Marie Darrieussecq's Our Life in the Forest because I connected with it personally. I loved Vernon Subutex 2; I think that VS as a whole is important, as well as a great fun read - and it's rarer still you find both of those in one package. But volume 2 is really the middle section of a 1000+ page novel - VS was originally meant to be one book - and structurally and rhythmically it doesn't work as a standalone, which I think is important for a prize like this one.) When a couple of other forum members said last week "I don't feel like I've read the winner yet" - I said I did, and The Years was that book. I'll be surprised if any of the other longlisted books top it in my estimation.
Drive Your Plow is the only one of these books I'd read in full before the announcement. Whilst I'm not sure about all aspects of the book, I (unusually) think it's a better work than last year's winner Flights, also by Tokarczuk, and more complex in the way it plays ideas and tropes off one another. A good contender for the shortlist.
I read Hubert Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter when it was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) - and didn't like it. Four Soldiers has the same premise - a historical novella about a small band of military men, set outside Mingarelli's home country of France. I don't think it makes sense to read a book by an author whose very similar previous work you disliked, especially an author who isn't a stone-cold classic, and normally I'd steer clear - but the Shadow Jury project necessitates an exception to the rule.
The Pine Islands, with blurb about "a journeyman lecturer on beard fashions in film", and its West European male protagonist's trip to Japan in search of stress relief, suggests a satire on hipsters hitting middle-age, although the tone seems quite serious. It'll be intriguing to see how this works in English, and I'm very grateful to Profile Books for sending out a PDF review copy of this so quickly. Thank you!
The Death of Murat Idrissi makes me apprehensive, although it's the shortest book on the list. When I first noticed it a couple of months ago, I thought it could be controversial, but that it was more likely it wouldn't get much attention in the online world of translated lit, because a white male author was writing about women of colour. The story didn't interest me a great deal, and it was also not something I wanted the responsibility of reviewing, because I don't know anything about the North African disapora in the Netherlands - I'd rather read reviews by people from or close to that community than write my uninformed own. Then, a few days ago, I saw a Twitter thread from an Arabic literature specialist expressing reservations, and hinting that the book might be a big deal. (The latter puzzled me at the time…) As Death of Murat Idrissi is apparently based on a true story, I'd like to find out more about that before reading the novel. By now, I've had a quick look at the first few pages, and the prose, for what it's worth, is superb. (Murat Idrissi, along with At Dusk, The Years, Mouthful of Birds- and brand new additions Celestial Bodies and Drive Your Plow is currently available on the UK version of ebook and audiobook subscription service Scribd, which I use regularly and which is good value if you are okay with reading on a tablet, desktop or smartphone.)
Also intimidating for a different reason is Can Xue's Love In The New Millennium. Can Xue is one of the most notoriously difficult writers in contemporary world literature. Her novel The Last Lover won the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), an American prize which often favours experimental literature. I read a small amount of The Last Lover in 2016, and the opening chapters, about Joe, his clothing company and his wife Maria, seemed okay (I gather it gets more complex later) but life got in the way, I put the book aside and still haven't returned to it. In the last six months, I've read Satantango, and Tom Jones (one of the longest novels I've ever finished, and which had been 'on hold' in a similar manner after reading a little bit in 2011) - but Can Xue seems a different order of things altogether.
Favourite cover designs
Of the four books with my favourite cover designs from among the MBI-eligible titles, two were longlisted. If only I'd used them as predictions, that would have been a 50% success rate (unlike my actual predictions).
Predictions and pre-prize reading
As almost everyone posting in the translated fiction blogosphere and GR discussions has said, not many of the widely-predicted titles are on this longlist.
Some of those I'm glad not to see on here - e.g. Javier Marías' 500 pager Berta Isla. 350 pages of him in 2014 IFFP and BTBA longlister The Infatuations was quite enough as far as I'm concerned. Fans say The Infatuations isn't his best work, but when one former Marías aficionado described the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy as 'James Bond with cod philosophy' I concluded I wouldn't like it any better - the cod philosophy was one of the most irritating aspects of The Infatuations. (And the only Bond film I really love is Skyfall.)
There were other touted books I was looking forward to reading: Sjón's CoDex 1962 (I've read all of his other novels translated to English), Tokyo Ueno Station, EU political satire The Capital by Robert Menasse, and two titles from new Latin-American focused small press Charco: Resistance by Julián Fuks - an author who's had some unfortunately timely press coverage because of Bolsonaro's election in Brazil - and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.
I realised last autumn that I was still doing too many "duty reads" - books I didn't expect to like much and which I was reading because they fitted the MBI prize criteria, were available (especially as ARCs or library books), and were short. (I usually have a good idea of what I will and won't like, and only one of said 'duty reads' from among the MBI-eligible titles - Our Life in the Forest by Marie Darrieussecq - turned out to be an unexpected 5-star.) I still read a few of these duty books in Feb-March, and although I found Last Children of Tokyo very interesting, there were several others I rather wish I hadn't read, instead spending the time on longer eligible books I wanted to read regardless of the prize (such as either of the two new books by Evgeny Vodolazkin, finishing Lala by Jacek Dehnel, or the titles mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Drive Your Plow and The Years are the two on this longlist I'd previosuly read, in part or in whole, and in both instances I wanted to read them regardless of prize eligibility. Maybe I'd be saying something different if The Order of the Day, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants and other books I've read but didn't love *had* appeared on the list. But in general I see less and less good in reading a book because you think you should (assuming this is for leisure reading, unpaid blogging etc and not for study or cash). One blogger @Mondyboy, came up with an excellent metaphor on Twitter for the surprises sprung on well-read translated fiction bloggers by this longlist: "it's like you've done your homework, but for the wrong class". I'd rather not approach it like homework in the first place - over the past five years or so, I've already read enough books I didn't like by doing things that way - would rather read for enjoyment and intrinsic interest rather than to try and anticipate the decisions of a group of 5 other readers who are being paid to read an even larger number of books. And on the subject of reading books only because they are widely talked about - after many years of feeling one should in order to stay in touch - I am coming round to the idea that a polite "it really wouldn't be my sort of thing" is a better response than baffled embitterment about one's own time and media column inches expended on the thing. (I think a really well-written hatchet job - that old Fleet Street tradition - can still be great, but it must be witty, and they are difficult to get right.) Saying all this feels foolish and cognitively-dissonant, as I've just read Four Soldiers, and rated it only 2.5 stars. But I read it because I'd signed up to the MBI bloggers' Shadow Jury, which I've wanted to do for years, and had vacillated about joining before. Very happy to have been accepted once I said I wanted to go ahead with it.
Let the reading begin… (Or rather, it already has).
Soundtrack: Pastoral by Gazelle Twin