Well, after three posts counting down the (relative) also-rans, we’ve finally reached the real contenders, the trio of books that have made it to our 2020 International Booker Prize longlist podium, waiting for a medal to be hung around their necks (and to be given some sort of commemorative fluffy toy that will be binned once they leave the stadium). But which of the three will be standing at the top of the podium, tearfully waiting for their national anthem to be played (most likely in a tinny recording over Zoom)? Let’s find out – here are my top three choices for this year 🙂
3) Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Sophie Hughes
What little I’d heard about Melchor’s novel before starting it was about ‘women’, ‘violence’, ‘society’ and ‘grim’, and having read it, I can now confirm that those are all good words to describe it. However, I was actually surprised by Hurricane Season as it turned out to be a very different novel to what I’d been expecting. It kicks off with the discovery of a body, and, naturally, the rest of the book slowly reveals who committed the crime, and why, with the reader fully in the picture by the final page.
Yet in some ways the book focuses less on one particular act of violence than on the way an unjust society has violence baked into it, rendering the crimes described in the book almost mundane and inevitable. The small, rural town where Hurricane Season is set is a place where dreams go to die, and if its inhabitants tend to squander their lives in a haze of sex, drugs, alcohol and violence, that’s mainly because there aren’t really any other choices. Cleverly, the writer shows her characters at their worst before gradually revealing more of their lives, allowing us to learn that the truth isn’t quite as it seems, and that the poor people whose lives she’s describing are often victims of their circumstances.
Hurricane Season is another success for Fitzcarraldo Editions (of whom more later), but as you may have noticed, my review copy comes courtesy of the Australian press Text Publishing, who have made some quite astute acquisitions in recent years. While they rely more on buying up rights for the ANZ market than on independent commissions, they’ve proven to have a good eye for fiction in translation, with Olga Tokarczuk, Yan Lianke and Elena Ferrante among the writers they promote down under. And if we want to complete the publishing picture, it’s only fair to mention the North American publisher, too – New Directions. I think it’s fair to say that Melchor’s anglophone future is in good hands.
With its lengthy, comma-laden sentences, designed to drag the reader along at a slightly uncomfortable pace, the book whizzes by, and even if I wasn’t always convinced by the mix of British and American English (a deliberate choice on the part of Hughes), it usually reads wonderfully. It may ‘only’ be getting a bronze medal here, but my prediction is that when the real prize is handed out, it’s Melchor that will be standing nervously in the spotlight, trying desperately not to drop the big chunk of crystal…
2) The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Damion Searls
And speaking of Fitzcarraldo Editions, they’ve taken out both of the minor placings in my longlist awards. Fitzcarraldo are no strangers to Booker success, of course, with Tokarczuk’s Flights winning both the official and shadow awards back in 2018 (it may interest you to know that the Shadow Panel also crowned Mathias Énard’s Compass in 2017, as well as awarding special mentions to his novel Zone back in 2015 and to Annie Ernaux’s The Years last time around). When you add a couple of Nobel Prize in Literature successes after publishing the writer’s work (Tokarczuk, again, and Svetlana Alexievich), you have to admit that this is a press well worth following.
Which makes it even more surprising that Fosse’s wonderful, if confusing, work wasn’t considered worthy of the official shortlist. As the full title suggests, The Other Name contains the first two installments of a seven-part novel featuring an ageing artist called Asle and his old friendship with another man – who also happens to be called Asle. Unlike some of the other longlisted titles, this isn’t a book where an awful lot happens (despite the odd trip into town for food, our friend keeps himself to himself – social isolation would *not* be an issue for Asle…), but he finds himself being dragged back into his past, both by his memories and the health problems the other Asle faces.
In terms of sheer reading pleasure, The Other Name was probably at the top of my list, with its deceptively simple rambling style, beautifully rendered by Searls, gently nudging the reader along. Asle’s musings to himself melt seamlessly into memories of the past or conversations with his elderly neighbour, chats that go around in circles both men have navigated many times before. As the snow settles on the painter’s sleepy corner of Norway, you may well find yourself drifting off – this is a perfect book for those dark winter evenings spent in a cosy book nook. I was very close to choosing this as my winner, and to be honest, it’s probably the fact that we’re only at the start of Asle’s journey that prevented me from doing so. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story unfolds, and with a bit of luck, Fitzcarraldo, and Searls, will be able to help us out with that later this year.
1) The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
– Harvill Secker, translated by Stephen Snyder
Yōko Ogawa first became well known in the Anglosphere with the appearance of the charming novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, yet that book, on the evidence of what else has appeared in English, appears to be an outlier among her back catalogue. There’s far more connecting this latest work with the dark novellas contained in The Diving Pool, the disturbing sexual fantasies of Hotel Iris and the frankly bizarre stories in Revenge than with the quirky book that made her name. The Memory Police announces its menace from the very cover, the name and the excellent logo setting the scene for a novel hinting at a totalitarian regime, one where people are seized in the street and where, in a rather Orwellian manner, objects simply ‘disappear’, with most people later unable to even recall that they ever existed at all.
But there’s so much more than this to Ogawa’s novel. Another way of reading The Memory Police is as an allegory of memory loss, and perhaps also the ageing process. While it’s tempting to focus on the island as a state determined to control its citizens’ very thoughts, at times I saw it more as an organism, a living entity whose life is gradually coming to a close. As the end approaches, the memories fade, and the Memory Police act as metaphorical antibodies, removing unnecessary objects in a vain attempt to put off the inevitable.
What really lifts The Memory Police above its contenders, though, is the story within the story, the main character’s final piece of fiction. It’s a clever piece that mirrors what’s happening in the ‘outside’ world, with both stories appearing to hint at a buried subconscious where the last vestiges of our personality remain. However, in a nod back to Hotel Iris, they also examine sexual politics and the desire to dominate and possess, with the typing teacher and his victim mirrror images of the book’s main narrator and her editor, R. Kafkaesque is an adjective that’s often overused when writing about literature, but it’s a valid term for discussing The Memory Police. Like much of Kafka’s work, Ogawa’s novel is a simple, eminently readable story, but one that can be understood on so many levels, and viewed very differently by different readers – which means it’s a book that will stand up both to multiple rereads and the test of time (it was actually written more than a quarter of a century ago…).
Ogawa is undoubtedly an excellent writer, and yet there’s still so little of her work available in English. When The Memory Police was longlisted for this year’s American BTBA (Best Translated Book Award), I was asked to contribute a post on the book explaining why it should win. In the end, I came up with a tongue-in-cheek piece suggesting a way that Snyder’s bosses could make more time for him to work on Ogawa’s fiction, but I was only partly joking. Just five of her books have made it into English in more than a decade, and that’s simply not good enough. The French language has more than double that, but dozens of her books still remain untranslated. As mentioned above, I suspect that Hurricane Season will take out the official prize, but I’m still crossing my fingers that it’s The Memory Police that’s called out on the evening, and that this will be the catalyst for more of Ogawa’s work to finally make it into English.
And that’s all, folks, from me, at least. I’m sure this year’s Shadow Panel will be offering up their own verdict at some point, and in this most unusual of years, the official announcement will (hopefully) happen before too long. I hope you’ve enjoyed my vicarious journey around the literary world, and I’d love to know what you think about my choices. Have I been harsh on your favourites? Have I praised books you hated? Please let me know in the usual place 🙂