24 January 2013
Anyone who could have guessed even five of the 10 novelists who have just been revealed as the finalists for the fifth Man Booker International Prize deserves a mass cap-doffing from the wider reading public. The previous incarnations of the prize have included a large cluster of well-known and indeed expected names, from Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera to Amos Oz and Joyce Carol Oates. There is, however, nothing familiar or expected about the list unveiled today by the chair of judges Sir Christopher Ricks at the DSC Jaipur Literary Festival.
It is a list that will, for many readers, open up a wealth of possibilities since perhaps only two of the writers can be said to have a wide international profile, Marilynne Robinson and Aharon Appelfeld. Robinson, an Orange Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner is the only one of the 10 who has been nominated for this prize before.
The full list comprises U R Ananthamurthy (India), Aharon Appelfeld (Israel), Lydia Davis (USA), Intizar Husain (Pakistan), Yan Lianke (China), Marie NDiaye (France), Josip Novakovich (Canada), Marilynne Robinson (USA), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia) and Peter Stamm (Switzerland). That means nine different countries are represented.
It is worth remembering that because there are no submissions allowed the Man Booker International Prize is chosen solely at the discretion of the judges. For the earlier prizes there had been three judges, this year, for the first time, there are five (Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Aminatta Forna, Yiyun Li and Tim Parks). It is this, says the prize administrator Fiammetta Rocco, that accounts for the surprising list of finalists. “Now that we have five judges,” she says, “we have been able to read in far greater depth than ever before.” Each of the judges has their own area of geographical expertise which allowed for a more comprehensive overview of contemporary world literature. “Fiction is now available in all sorts of forms and in translation in more countries,” notes Rocco, “this list recognises that and is the fruit of the judges' collective reading.”
The list of finalists reveals other things too she thinks. This is a young though very experienced judging panel (although not as young as Marie NDiaye who, at 45, is the most youthful Man Booker International finalist to date) and its choices show a taste for Modernism rather than conventional narrative: “the judges were interested in novelists who push the form”, says Rocco. Many of the novelists – NDiaye, Novakovich and Sorokin among them – are fascinated by cultural migrants which produces in turn a very rich literature. Nevertheless, as Christopher Ricks stresses, these are novelists whose work is different rather than similar.
One of the benefits of such a high profile prize is that it brings with it its own sense of momentum. It is a prerequisite of the prize that the finalists' work should be available in English and since the MBI imprimatur is a guarantee of quality their nomination will hopefully lead to more of their work being translated in more countries. The winner of the £60,000 prize can also choose a translator of their work to receive a £15,000 award of their own.
The announcement of this year's prize recipient will be made at a dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 22nd May and with this list the judges have already made sure the name will be a surprise.