The shortlist for this year's £50,000 International Booker Prize features two nominations for Pushkin Press, a first ever appearance for fellow indie Lolli Editions, and four writers not previously published in English.
Awarded annually, the prize goes to the finest fiction from around the world that has been translated into English, with money split equally between author and translator.
Pushkin's first nomination is At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis. The book captures the tragedy of a young man's mind hurtling towards madness and tells the little-heard story of the Senegalese who fought for France on the Western Front during the First World War.
Judges said it was “like nothing else in terms of tone and power, it is a blinding revelation, an incantatory work of kinship and terror”. The book, Diop's second, has been shortlisted for 10 major prizes in France and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens as well as the Swiss Prix Ahmadou Korouma.
Also from Pushkin is When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West. The book is a blend of fact and fiction that uses epoch-defining moments from the history of science to tell its “grippingly narrated” stories.
Joining the shortlist is The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Granta), a book of short stories populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina. Judges said it was “smart, political, unputdownable”.
Olga Ravn's The Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Lolli Editions), is also in the running for the prize. Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, the “beautiful and moving” tale follows the crew of the Six-Thousand Ship which consists of "those who were born, and those who were made, those who will die, and those who will not". Judges said: “In deceptively simple prose, threaded on a fully achieved and ambitiously experimental structure, it asks big questions about sentience and the nature of humanity.”
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Fitzcarraldo Editions), also features, telling the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century. Judges called it “an act of truth-telling like no other”.
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (Picador) completes the shortlist. It tells the story of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century through complex and controversial figure Thomas Müntzer. “From the very first paragraph of this blazing piece of historical fiction Vuillard has the reader transfixed,” said the judges.
Of the six shortlisted authors, only Éric Vuillard and Mariana Enriquez have been published in English before.
The shortlist was selected by a judging panel chaired by cultural historian and novelist, Lucy Hughes-Hallett. She was joined by journalist and writer Aida Edemariam, Man Booker-shortlisted novelist Neel Mukherjee, professor of the history of slavery Olivette Otele, and poet, translator and biographer George Szirtes.
Hughes-Hallett said choosing had been a difficult process, but added: “From quite early on it was obvious we'd found some really outstanding books and we were going to be very happy to be able to honour them and to bring them before the world.”
She said there had been an “extraordinary amount of ingenuity and originality” in the books the panel had read. She said: “Our six shortlisted books, chosen from 125 submissions, are all extraordinary, and wildly unlike each other. We have the genres of sci-fi and ghost-stories being brilliantly subverted and repurposed. We have biographical essays opening out to become blazingly imaginative testaments to the strangeness of the universe or the cruelty of human injustice. We have a hallucinatory and terrifying vision of the madness of warfare. We have a meditative journey into a family’s history that becomes a profoundly moving story about the way time eventually bears us all away.
“To arrive at this list we had, regretfully, to eliminate numerous books we enjoyed and admired. These six, though, seemed to us outstanding. Their differences demonstrate how vital the art of fiction is worldwide. What they have in common is their beauty, their originality and their power to grip the reader and excite new thoughts.”
The 2021 International Booker Prize winner will be announced on 2nd June 2021 in an online ceremony from Coventry, UK City of Culture 2021.
- Penguin claims two spots on Pushkin House Russian Book Prize shortlist
- Ferrante, Pamuk shortlisted for Man Booker International Prize
- Oneworld debut shortlisted for 2017's Man Booker International Prize
- International Booker Prize times its shortlist promotion for shop reopenings
- Two nominations for translator Hughes as International Booker Prize longlist revealed