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The 2021 International Booker Prize shortlist

The 2021 International Booker Prize shortlist

So, the business end of the International Booker Prize comes into sight. The announcement of the shortlist means that the time between now and the big reveal in Coventry City of Culture 2021, on 2 June will concertina. The judges – Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Aida Edemariam, Neel Mukherjee, Olivette Otele, and George Szirtes – can award themselves a short break before returning to their chosen six novels and persuading, convincing or arm-wrestling one another to a result.

If the longlist, filtered from 125 submissions, was exceptionally wide-ranging and showed the judges’ willingness to listen to new authorial voices then the shortlist reflects it too. The six novels are:

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, Pushkin Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

Looking for patterns in the list would tax even the most hardened of codebreakers. Only one of the 12 authors and translators involved has appeared on an IBP prize shortlist before – Megan McDowell, translator of Mariana Enríquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed – all the others are the freshest of fresh faces. Two of the books were written in Spanish and two in French but both Spanish nominees are from South America – Mariana Enríquez (Argentina) and Benjamin Labatut (Chile) – who, to complicate things, was born in Rotterdam. Only one publisher has more than one nomination, Pushkin Press, while Lolli Editions, publisher of Olga Ravn’s The Employees, has never had a shortlisted (or longlisted) book before. Two-thirds of the shortlisted authors are published in English for the first time. Five out of the six books come it at under 200 pages, so perhaps the judges have a penchant for a slim, well-formed volume (the text of The War of the Poor is only 66 pages long), but then Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory comprises 500 pages of none-too-large text. It is all a bit of a head-scratcher and this heterogeneity means the reader has few clues as to the judges’ thinking.

The subjects of the books are no more uniform. At Night All Blood is Black is about the descent into madness of a traumatised Senegalese soldier fighting for France in the First World War. The novel has already won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in France, the Swiss Prix Ahmadou Korouma and the Strega European Prize in Italy. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is a collection of haunting and macabre short stories filled with dead babies, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women all set in an Argentina that is recognisable but off kilter. Mariana Enríquez has previously won the Premio Herralde de Novela while her translator Megan McDowell has won various awards for translation including a 2020 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

When We Cease to Understand the World looks at some of science’s great discoveries and the dangers they unleashed – Einstein and the theory of relativity, Alexander Grothendieck and mathematical abstraction, Schrödinger and Heisenberg and quantum mechanics. The unveiling of these hidden worlds have consequences. Benjamín Labatut has won prizes for his short stories while his translator Adrian Nathan West is himself an author and essayist. The Employees meanwhile is set on a spaceship and examines the relationship between humans and humanoids as emotional truths about the nature of living are revealed. As well as writing fiction, Olga Ravn runs the feminist performance group and writing school Hekseskolen while her translator Martin Aitken won the PEN America Translation Prize in 2019.

In Memory of Memory uses essays, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents to recreate the lives of a Jewish family during the past century. It shows how artefacts and memories are both solid and fragile. The book won Maria Stepanova Russia’s Bolshaya Kniga Award while her translator Sasha Dugdale is also a poet who has been awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016 and a Cholmondeley Prize for Poetry in 2017. While The War of the Poor discusses equality, religion and the life of a visionary during the 16th-cntury Protestant Reformation. Éric Vuillard has won several major literary awards including, in 2017, the Prix Goncourt, while his translator Mark Polizzotti is also an author as well as a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the recipient of a 2016 American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature.

All this means that readers can approach the shortlist with wide open minds. There is as yet no front runner or even hint as to whether the judges have a particular penchant, so the six books can be relished entirely on the own terms. Sometimes the International Booker Prize and Booker Prize shortlists are dauntingly hefty for readers keen to keep pace with the judges, but this shortlist amounts to a combined total of 1,218 pages, a modest aggregate for six books when Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy comes in at 2,114 pages. Readers have a decent chance to get through them all before the judges announce their winner. It is a chance worth taking.