‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra (Review – MBIP 2018, Number 13)

We’re approaching the final stages of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, with the winner to be announced on the evening of Tuesday, the 22nd of May (and, more importantly, the Shadow Winner a matter of hours beforehand).  However, due to a delay in the library system, it’s only today that we’re completing our vicarious journey around the literary world with a look at the last of the thirteen longlisted titles.  So, have good things come to he who has waited (i.e. me)?  Have we saved the best for last?

Yeah, about that…

The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra
– Harvill Secker, translated by Natasha Wimmer
What’s it all about?
Your guess is as good as mine…

The book is unevenly divided into two sections, with the first seeing the writer going through newspaper reports to examine the kidnapping (and subsequent murder) of her grandfather, a prominent politician, in 1977.  After that, the story moves on to the present day, where the writer is in New York, remembering the final stages of her mother’s life.  A year after her death, Ybarra revisits the hospital they spent so much time at looking for… I’m not sure.  Closure of some sort?

Let’s not beat around the bush here. I’m not exactly a fan of The Dinner Guest, and I’m certainly not alone in my views – of the shadow judges to have finished it, all have placed it in their bottom two (most as their wooden spooner). It’s only a short read, so you’d think that you’d be able to put up with it for the 140 pages (with lots of space) that the story extends to, but in truth Ybarra outstays her welcome well before the last page.

So, why was this such a disappointment?  For one thing, the novel really doesn’t hang together.  The forty pages concerning the grandfather’s murder have very little to do with the hundred-page description of the mother’s illness, despite the rather cosmetic ending attempting to tie the strands together.  The Ybarra name is well-known in Spain, and there’s a suspicion that this first section was merely included to suck in readers in the original country of publication.

This is a shame in a way, as there’s enough there in the second part to suggest that a better writer could have made a passable novel out of the story of the mother’s illness.  There are some touching moments between the two women, such as when the daughter realises she needs to help her frail mother shower, and the writer gradually develops a sense of her own mortality:

Most of the time I don’t think about it.  Only when I brush my hair in front of the mirror and I see the single grey hair that sticks up from the crown of my head.  Other times when I’m lying in bed, I concentrate on my body inflating and deflating and I become aware of being mortal.
p.62 (Harvill Secker, 2018)

These moments when the mask slips, and the detached writer becomes the distraught daughter are the best sections of the work.

However, for the most part, The Dinner Guest is merely a series of emotionless anecdotes with little to recommend them.  The writing, while not terrible, is usually bland, and I don’t think that’s something you could palm off on Wimmer (the translator of some of Roberto Bolaño’s greatest works, lest we forget…).  It’s obviously a rather personal work, so where’s the emotion?  How is it possible to write about two dead family members and leave the reader fairly cold? To be fair, that’s a rather impressive feat.

To make one last point about the family, I’ll use Ybarra’s own words:

Now, after having spent months in the archives reading my grandfather’s story, I understand that the symbolic value of Neguri and my last name still endures. (p.115)

You’d better believe that she understands that, because it’s hard to believe that a similar work, written by an unknown first-time author, would ever have made its way out of the slush pile.  The Dinner Guest does have its moments, but overall it feels like a vanity project that somehow made its way into the hands of a major publisher…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Seriously, did you actually hear what I just said?

This is my seventh year of shadowing the IFFP/MBIP, and in that time I’ve read exactly 100 longlisted titles, with several among them that I’ve really not got along with.  Notable lowlights include Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mother (which I hated, but a lot of people loved), Chris Barnard’s Bundu (which, to be fair, was an entertaining action-enviro-thriller-romance) and Stefanie de Velasco’s Tiger Milk (which was simply a reasonable YA book entered into a contest it probably shouldn’t have been in).

My point?  Congratulations are due to Ybarra for producing my least favourite book of the past seven longlists – in at number 100 with a bullet 🙂

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
It shouldn’t have made the longlist in the first place, and I’m fairly angry with the judging panel for inflicting this on us when they could have recognised one of the many more deserving books (and writers, translators and publishers) out there.  We in the Shadow Panel considered calling in Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands for our prize, but the majority of the group urged caution, saying that we should go with the official judges’ verdict.

Yeah, I’m angry about that, too 😉

Well, that was a disappointing end to our journey around the literary world, but please don’t let today’s post overshadow the memories of some of the excellent books we encountered along the way.  Despite the very different look to the official and shadow shortlists, 2018 did produce a number of entertaining and thought-provoking works, and I’ve enjoyed (most of) them immensely.  Now all that remains is to see which of the titles will be recognised as best in class, both digitally (by us) and in real life (by the Booker people).  Please come back soon to find out what the decisions were – and what we make of the official winner 🙂

9 thoughts on “‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra (Review – MBIP 2018, Number 13)

  1. Thanks for the honest heads up on this one, Tony – it had looked interesting but now I’m pretty sure it would be a disappointment. The Stolen Bicycle is the one which looks good to me but … I haven’t actually read any of the Shadow Short List this year –


    1. Becky – Yeah, I don’t usually slate books so badly, but I feel that this one just didn’t deserve the publicity it’s got from this longlisting…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I borrowed this book from the library last month, haven’t read it yet. Maybe i should just return it back. This reminds me of “A Cup of Rage” which was longlisted few years back, which I found unreadable, but the judges had better opinion i guess.


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