The MBIP 2019 Winner Is…

After the announcement of our Shadow Winner for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, there’s only one more stop on this arduous literary voyage around the world, namely the unveiling of the official winner.  Even if the judges’ decisions weren’t always entirely clear to everyone outside their enclave (and at times downright incomprehensible), with several impressive and fascinating books on the shortlist, we were still intrigued to see who would actually get the nod from the five-strong panel of judges (and hoping that they wouldn’t make a horrendous mistake at the last minute…).  So, whose book has managed to stagger across the finish line in first place, wiping away the sweat and waving to the crowd (although that’s a *very* strange thing for a book to do)?


Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies
(translated by Marilyn Booth, published by Sandstone Press)

Congratulations!  Celestial Bodies is a book I enjoyed immensely, and even if it wouldn’t have been (and wasn’t) my prediction, it’s still a nice choice as the winner.

Before we get to the winner, I’d like to talk about the rest of the shortlist and speculate as to why these five books didn’t win the big prize.  Of course, our selection, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of the Ruins (tr. Anne McLean: MacLehose Press), must have been in with a chance, but I suspect that the forbidding denseness of the story (in particular the 200pp. Uribe Uribe tale) persuaded the judges to go for something a little more reader-friendly.  Also, while they would never admit it publicly, I’d be very surprised if the idea of bestowing the prize on the only man on the shortlist didn’t give the judges pause for thought…

Another controversial decision would have been to reward Annie Ernaux’s slice of auto- (non-) fiction, The Years (tr. Alison Strayer: Fitzcarraldo Editions), especially as many people weren’t too happy with its longlisting in the first place.  The Years was proudly placed in Fitzcarraldo’s ‘white’ series of essay works, and while it’s certainly not standard non-fiction, this labelling would seem to suggest that the book’s opponents have a point.  It’s probably for the best that the book (and those in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series before it) didn’t win the prize, if only for the sake of one of our Shadow judges – and her blood pressure 😉

One writer who has won the prize before, of course, is Olga Tokarczuk, whose previous novel in English, Flights, (tr. Jennifer Croft) was a popular victor last year.  I was never quite convinced that Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo), despite Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ excellent work on the translation, was as good, and another major cloud over the book was whether the judges of a prize designed to highlight fiction in translation would really want to give the trophy (and the money, and the publicity) to the same person two years in a row.  The answer, of course, is no, but don’t worry – Tokarczuk will no doubt be back.  Fitzcarraldo will be bringing out The Books of Jacob, in Croft’s translation again, in September 2020.  Another potential winner?  You heard it here first…

With those three accounted for, that only leaves two other contenders, and moving swiftly past Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands (tr. Jen Calleja: Serpent’s Tail) – if you’ve read my review, you’ll know why -, that leaves us with Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (tr. Sophie Hughes: And Other Stories), which I suspect might have been very popular with the judges.  In fact, I was half expecting this one to be called out at the award ceremony, and it has a lot in common with the actual winner in terms of being from a non-European female writer published by a small press.  A very good chance, then, but obviously not quite good enough…

Which, of course, brings us to this year’s winner, Celestial Bodies.  It’s a book that most people seem to have enjoyed and, more importantly, one that nobody seems to have disliked, which may partly explain its success.  One of the motivations of the judges is surely to end up with a book that they believe the public will enjoy, and where The Shape of the Ruins, for example, probably doesn’t quite fit that bill, Alharthi’s novel definitely does.

It’s a conventional story in many ways, relating the lives and eventual marriages of three Omani sisters (in that sense it’s reminiscent of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters), but with a slightly unusual structure, taking us backwards and forwards in time, that conceals just as much as it reveals.  While there is a suggestion that the plot is a little underdeveloped, the main focus is less on a particular event than on describing the lives of the sisters and the changes that have taken place in Oman over the past few decades, and this aspect of the novel is extremely successful.

The book was released by Sandstone Press, a publisher I’d never heard of before Celestial Bodies was chosen for the longlist, but after a quick look at their other offerings, I did come up with one familiar name.  There was a recent German-language TV series you may have heard of called Babylon Berlin, and Sandstone Press publish the books the show was based on, written by Volker Kutscher (and translated by Niall Sellar).  I’m not sure if they’ve published many other books in translation, but I’m sure after this they’ll be celebrating their decision to publish Alharthi, and hopefully considering bringing out more translated works in the future 🙂

Overall, while I’m a little disappointed none of my real favourites were chosen, Celestial Bodies is a book I’m happy to see win, even if only as it sheds some well-deserved light on another small press and an area of the world that can be a little under-represented in these prizes (and of course, because it will bring some joy to M Lynx Qualey in her quest to spread the gospel of Arabic-language literature!).  For me, though, perhaps the strongest feeling that will linger from the 2019 reading and shadowing is regret at the books that didn’t get a chance, the many excellent titles that were overlooked by the judges.  Although we were all grateful that a book like Celestial Bodies was brought to our attention, I remain to be convinced that this longlist truly contained the ‘finest fiction’ of the year.  Here’s looking forward to 2020 and hoping that next year’s crop of contenders really does live up to that billing.

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