The Shadow Panel Has A Winner for the Man Booker International Prize 2016

It wasn’t easy. The choice came down to a tie between Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe and The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Neck and neck they each scored four points from the shadow panel, which required a tie-breaker according to some rule not entirely clear to me.

But then again, I’m not entirely clear on which book of all thirteen I felt should win. Personally, I loved The Story of The Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, but I don’t believe it should win because I don’t believe it can stand alone. Yet even that book, my favorite of all those long listed for the Man Booker International Prize 2016, does not compare to the way I loved The Detour, official winner of the IFFP, or The Sorrow of Angels, shadow panel winner of the IFFP, in years past.

I should mention that the shadow jury was in great favor of Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, an opinion I do not share. No, I am content with the final two choices as pictured above: The Vegetarian which is filled with images of the life of a woman gone mad, and Death by Water which is filled with the struggles of a writer and father.

Anyone who reads this blog knows what a fan I am of Japanese literature, and for me, Oe’s book is the better of the two. But, by virtue of the shadow panel jury’s rules, our winner is The Vegetarian.

That choice is especially interesting to me as it is also on the official long list. Is there a chance that the two could actually match? I anxiously await May 16, when we hear the judges’ decision as to the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

Until then, a heartfelt thank you to Stu and Tony, who led the shadow panel these past few months, and my fellow panel readers: Clare, Tony, Grant, David and Lori (Twitter: @LoriFeathers). It was such a pleasure to read with all of you aficionados of translated literature.


The Shadow Jury Has Reached A Decision for the Man Booker International Prize Short List



Stu and Tony have added up the scores which the Shadow Jury entered into the spreadsheet yesterday, thereby coming up with our short list for the Man Booker International Prize. They are:

  • Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
  • The Four Books by Yan Lianke
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • Mend The Living (entitled The Heart in the US) by Maylis de Kerangai
  • Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
  • The Story of The Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

It is a list with which I am thrilled! I firmly believe that each book on our short list has earned its rightful place amongst the best of the thirteen up for the award because I so value the opinion of each Jury member. And, four of the six are my personal favorites. (It should be mentioned that Tram 83 missed out “by a whisker” as Tony said.)

Now we await the official judges’ decision on April 14. I’m anxious to see if they agree with readers.

(Update with official list):

The 2016 Man Booker International Shortlist

Title (imprint) Author (nationality) Translator (nationality)

A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Daniel Hahn (UK)

The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), Elena Ferrante (Italy), Ann Goldstein (USA)

The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith (UK)

A Strangeness in my Mind (Faber & Faber), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Ekin Oklap (Turkey)

A Whole Life (Picador), Robert Seethaler (Austria), Charlotte Collins (UK)

The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas (USA)

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (Man Booker International Prize Long List)


“I was happy in this house, on those afternoons when the sun came into the kitchen to pay me a visit. I would sit down at the table. Phantom would come over and rest his head in my lap.

If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.

I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.

In this house all the walls have my mouth.” p. 104

I thought this book would be more about one woman’s isolated life behind the walls of an apartment she had barricaded herself into, and less about the revolution in Angola.

I thought it would have more letters, memories, and scribblings which she had left on the apartment walls after living there for years and years in utter isolation.

I thought I would like reading about an introvert in the extreme, a person who disliked being outside at all.

Instead, there was much about trapping pigeons with rough diamonds, and political goings on.

Frankly, I didn’t like it. It is my least favorite of the long list so far. Find more thoughts, with a better plot summary, from 1st Reading.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Translated by Daniel Hahn
244 pages

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Man Booker International Prize Long List)


Every single one of them – her parents who had force-fed her meat, her husband and siblings who stood by and let it happen – were distant strangers, if not actual enemies.

What a strange, compelling novel. It’s the first one I’ve read for the Man Booker International Prize which didn’t feel almost arduous. It isn’t ever boring; it’s very brevity makes it a fast read. But don’t think that because it’s under 200 pages that diminishes the impact of the content.

The story is told through the point of view of Yeong-hye’s husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. Through their eyes we learn that Yeong-hye has one morning decided to give up eating meat, simply because she says she had a dream. In fact, to me, her entire character is depicted as if she’s in a dreamlike state, except for the times she acts out against people trying to force her to do something they want. At one point, her heavy handed father holds her down and forces a piece of meat into her mouth, after which she suddenly grabs a fruit knife and slices her wrist.

The cover of the novel depicts the flow of blood quite vividly in its brilliant red shade; the image of roots and leaves and branches depict the state of Yeong-hye’s desire with ever increasing accuracy.

I found it to be more of a psychological nature than a physical one. Yeong-hye is clearly disgusted at the state of the human condition, and it seems she is trying to shed any semblance of such.

“What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hue (her sister) recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’s been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the au down to earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, has the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventual to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

Author Han Kang says, “The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye who decides on an extreme vegetarian diet in order to reject the violence inherent in human nature. Eventually wanting no more part in the human race, and believing that she is becoming a plant, she refuses to consume anything but water. Though this is a desperate effort to save herself, the irony is that in reality she is bringing herself closer to death.”

We follow her story with a mixture of curiosity and awe, and when we come to the end, we find a strange sadness, even from her sister and her sister’s son. Surely Yeong-hye is not alone in her alienation, or her dream-like perspective.

Undoubtedly, The Vegetarian will be on the Man Booker International Prize short list.

Find Lori’s review at Words Without Borders, Clare’s review at A Little Blog of Books, Athira’s review at Reading On a Rainy Day, and Tony’s review at Messengers Booker.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Published in English in 2015
188 pages

Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

“Death is going to find us all, no matter what, we still have to take active responsibility for what remains of our lives.”

This quote found early on in Death by Water is what I’m taking away from a novel with many themes. Kenzaburo Oe has written about parenting, aging, writing, and the future event we all will face, weaving them together in a novel which centers on a 74 year old author’s point of view.

Why the red leather suitcase in the photo above? Because it emerges again and again throughout the novel, though more acurately as a red leather trunk which Kogito’s mother bought at an antique store. It housed important papers and books and correspondence which Kogito’s father had taken with him the night he took a boat into the raging river and drowned.

But once Kogito is finally able to open it, he finds nothing of value to help him write “the drowning-novel”, the book he supposes will be his last. The book that he hopes will help answer the many questions he has about his father’s death. Why did he set out in his boat on such a perilous night? Was Kogito really with him, or did he dream the sequence of events while watching on the riverbank?

“I was looking for a way to express what a momentous occurrence my father’s drowning was for our family, but in a fit of cowardice I wrote the whole scene as if it were the recollection of a dream.”

The title of the novel, indeed its overarching theme, comes from these lines of poetry written by T. S. Eliot:


A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.”

~T. S. Eliot

But the lines of T. S. Eliot’s poem is echoed in the first two lines of a poem that Kogito’s mother wrote, and the last three written by Kogito in response:

“You didn’t get Kogii ready to go up into the forest
And like the river current, you won’t return home
In Tokyo during the dry season
I’m remembering everything backward
From old age to earliest childhood.”

The name Kogii has many meanings. It refers to Kogito’s nickname, but also to an imaginary friend, a supernatural alter-ego if you will. Kogito has come to figure out that his mother used the name to reference his mentally disabled son, Akari, as well.

The phrase “to go up into the forest” is a Japanese euphemism for death, and it seems that she is chiding her son, Kogito, for not taking care of his son, Akari. For indeed, their relationship is a troubled one.

Akari has a mental disability, but a great passion for music. He listens to classical CDs which make up the environment of their home, and is able to read the scores of music to compare sonatas between Beethoven and Hayden. But when he uses a pen to mark up a particularly special sheet of music, instead of the soft lead pencil his father has given him, his father says, “You’re an idiot!” It causes what seems to be irreparable damage between them.

When I wondered why his father did not apologize, it occurred to me that perhaps he couldn’t. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about accusing his son of what he saw as truth, no matter how hurtful it might have been. Perhaps he wasn’t sorry about expressing his frustration at living with a son who in many ways is still a child.

I have read of Oe describing a father’s frustration over having a handicapped child before, in his novel A Personal Matter. It seems that the themes he uses are from his own experience, that his novels resonate with truths which he has experienced.

Near the end of the novel, a theater critic interviews Kogito in his study, and makes these observations while discussing his previously published books:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered general novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?

and the answer:

“I’ve often asked myself how I ended up following such a constricted path in my fiction, but I always seem to come back to the sobering realization that if I hadn’t used the quasi-autobiographical approach I wouldn’t have been able to write anything at all. In other words, I’ve had to maintain this narrow focus out of sheer necessity.”

We close with another line from T. S. Eliot’s poetry, a favorite of Kogito’s and therefore perhaps Oe’s as well:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

These words, uttered by Kogito, have made his friend Unaiko cry. Why? “She said it made her realize that even for an older author who has had a great deal of success, the struggle never ends; on the contrary, it goes on forever, until you die.”

As it does for all of us.

Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
translated from Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
424 pages

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Man Booker International Prize Long List)


Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1979 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.


I had never heard of the beverage called boza before, let alone of a street vendor who sells it calling out, “Booo-za!” Even the intonation of his voice can make all the difference between who answers his call to purchase a glass, or perhaps a kilo, and who doesn’t.

Mevlut is humble and good, hard-working and innocent. He doesn’t know his cousin Suleyman will trick him when he elopes with whom he believes is Samiha. The letters that Mevlut has written for three years, expressively declaring his love for her beautiful eyes, have been delivered to her older sister, Rayiha, instead.

Upon seeing his bride’s face in a moment of bright light after their carefully planned escape, he is as surprised as Jacob when he realizes he had been duped into marrying Leah rather than his beloved Rachel.

“He had no clear understanding of how he had been tricked, no memory of how he’d arrived at this moment, and so the strangeness in his mind became a part of the trap he had fallen into.”

Throughout the novel we come across these recurrent themes: the strangeness in the mind, the life of the working class in Istanbul, and the question of fate. In particular, is the person we marry the one who was meant for us?

I felt a deep sense of simpatico with Mevlut, who questions his thoughts by calling them a strangeness in his mind.

“There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.”

And of course, we are ultimately alone. But this story of Mevlut and Rayiha, her beautiful sister Samiha, their relatives and friends, bring to light how interdependent we are on one another. It makes me examine my own life to see where things have worked for good without even knowing they would turn out that way.

Find other thoughts from Stu here.

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orham Pamuk
Published October 20, 2015
624 pages

The Four Books by Yan Lianke (Man Booker International Prize long list)




“The higher-ups also said, This is good. Let them labor; that way they can be commended and reformed. Let them labor day and night, so that they may thereby be reformed and remade. Regardless of where they were originally located – in the capital, the south, in the provincial seat, or in a local area – and regardless of whether they were originally professors, cadres, scholars, teachers, or painters, they all must come here to work and create, to educate and become a new people. They will remain here for two, three, five, or eight years, or even their entire lives.”

Almost immediately we are thrust into the heart of the story which takes place in a Re-Ed camp, the ninety-ninth district, in which peoples such as the Author, the Scholar, the Theologian, the Musician, the Technician, and the Physician are all led by the Child. They are there to be “re-educated” for something they have done has upset the government during the period in China from 1958-1962.

The Author is promised a special reward if he writes an account of all that goes on. “The higher-ups have proposed a title, which is Criminal Records. They say that each chapter should be fifty pages long, and ask that whenever you finish fifty pages you turn them in and they will give you another fifty blank sheets of paper. They say that as long as you finish this book, not only will they allow you to return to the provincial seat to be reunited with your family, but they will have the book printed and distributed throughout the country. They will reassign you to the capital, to be the leader of the country’s writers.” And so it is his pages that we are reading, some which he writes for the government, some which he keeps for himself.

Parts of it reads like a joke. The Child, who is partly wise, but mostly naïve, comes up with a reward system like one would find in an elementary school. “Beginning today, we will implement a Red Blossom and a Pentagonal Star system. If you earn an award, we will also issue you a small red blossom. If your receive a blossom, you should post it over your bed, and every month you will be evaluated. Once you have five small blossoms, we will award you a medium-sized one, and once you have five medium-sized blossoms, we will award you a large pentagonal star. Once you have five stars, you will be permitted to return to your family, your work unit, and your lecturn. You’ll return to your laboratory and your library, and won’t ever have to come back here to be re-educated with the other criminals.” The result of this proclamation is that everyone scurried around looking for people to tattle on.

There is no endeavor held out by the higher-ups that the Child will not accept. First he is determined to smelt 100 tons of steel from black sand, a plan devised not by him, but by one of the “criminals” within the camp.  When he gets the workers to accomplish this near impossible task , because perhaps 20, 30 or even 40 of them will be permitted to return home for reward, he is told next that he must make a piece of high quality steel.

But when the Child presents a red star at the provincial seat, it is deemed second best to an inferior steel star imprinted with the word Loyalty. Now he must produce a “ten-thousand-jin-per-mu” field of wheat with grains as big as ears of corn.

The Author promised that he could make such a thing possible, and in his attempt discovered that drops of his own blood, mixed with water, caused the grains of wheat to grow larger than peas or peanuts. When everyone saw this, they believed that blood could produce extraordinary crops. “That autumn, the entire district was full of the smell of blood.”

Will it ever be enough?

Fragments of Christianity are thrown in these pages, such as: “The name Jesus means savior…and a savior refers to someone who will always, always go into adversity to rescue others.” But, no one is a rescuer in this novel, especially when the country is later consumed by famine. Lianke references mythology to tell the story of the crisis which happened in China during these years.

We are left with the idea that punishment becomes an ordinary condition, and is therefore no longer considered God’s punishment for our transgressions. But, by becoming accustomed to  punishment, we come to accept absurdity and hardship, fearful of a new and worse punishment. It is a graphic picture of a horrible government which makes me shudder in how un-myth-like it all is.

Find another revier here at ANZ Litlover’s blog, here at Stu‘s and at Clare‘s, here at Grant‘s, and here at Tony‘s.



The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Man Booker International Prize Long List)



I began talking about The Story of The Lost Child with my  mother on one of our early morning phone conversations while I was driving to work because I couldn’t wait to talk with her about it until we were face to face. “Mother,” I said, “Elena wants it all! She wants to be a successful writer, and have her married lover, and be a good mother, and she doesn’t even know that’s impossible!” I was fuming inside over Lena’s ignorance.

“That’s why,” my mother replied, “it’s the perfect 21st century novel.”

The Neapolitan novels are so very powerful, and have been written about so voraciously, that they need little reflection from me. But I will explore my thoughts as a member of the shadow jury, and as a reader, for they are surely some of the most important works to have been published this decade.

They begin with My Brilliant Friend and end with The Story of The Lost Child, which is why for me, this cannot be a stand alone novel. Indeed the novel ends in recounting an event with which the first book begins; we come full circle through all four of the novels. So, it’s interesting that it earned a place on the Man Booker International Prize long list when surely some of its power is lost if the reader is coming to it without having read the prior three. Yet, how can the writing of Elena Ferrante not be recognized with the other important writers of our time?

The Story of The Lost Child continues the exploration of the friendship between Elena Greco (Lena) and Raffaella Cerullo (Lila), from when they are little girls until they are old women.

I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.

As I write the word “friendship” I feel it must be taken loosely, for surely these two women are almost in a combative relationship. I had been convinced that it was Lila who was the manipulative one, the conniving, charismatic, brilliant friend who got everything she ever wanted. But then I see in this last novel how Lena has published the tragedy of Lila’s girl being lost, something she promised Lila never to do. They seem to violate each other’s wishes for their own personal interests, they seem to compete at who is the most beautiful, the most successful, the most dearly loved. They fall in love with the same man, one who could commit to neither.

“Look at me,” she (Lila) whispered. “I know I’m mean to tell you these things, but he is much worse than I am. He has the worst kind of meanness, that of superficiality.”

They even become pregnant with their two little girls almost simultaneously. As if the comparisons they make to each other are not enough, their competition is carried out further in the lives of these two daughters.

The novel also shows us the violence of Naples, Italy, the passion of relationships, the turmoil of our lives even if we live no where near Italy ourselves. In reading its pages I find a tremendous connection to my own life, which perhaps other readers do as well, for who hasn’t experienced a tumultuous friendship? A disastrous love? A parent/child relationship with enormous potholes?

It took me a long time to read The Story of The Lost Child. There was much to think about, much to absorb, much to question and ponder. I love it. I love it for the questions it raises, unanswerable questions, which make the best books great as we puzzle through the enigmas for ourselves.

For thus the novel ends:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.

Find thoughts from Tony and Clare, fellow shadow jury members who have also reviewed this book.


The Man Booker International Prize 2016, and The Shadow Jury’s Judging Commences


The long list for the Man Booker International Prize was announced last Thursday, and with it arrived the focus of my reading for the next several weeks. I think I have read fewer titles than my fellow jury members, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less ardent in my intention to read them all.

As you can see I have A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk, The Four Books by Yan Lianke, and White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. I have Tram  83 downloaded on my iPad, Mend The Living to be gifted from Mookse, and I’m already reading The Story of The Lost Child by Elena Ferrante on my kindle, having read the first three of the Neapolitan novels previously. I’m particularly thrilled to see Orhan Pamuk and Elena Ferrante on the long list; surely they will advance to the finals if I make an early prediction.

The Shadow Jury has an official statement, thanks to Tony of Tony’s Reading List, which I will share with you here:

“The Shadow Panel for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize congratulates the official judges on curating a long list of thirteen fascinating titles, a selection containing many familiar names, but with enough surprise inclusions to keep us on our toes. We are particularly pleased about the geographical spread of the list; with seven of the thirteen books originating from outside Europe, the longlist has a truly global feel, which was certainly not the case with the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.

Of course, as with any subjective selection, there are some areas for discussion. Firstly, we note that female authors are underrepresented, with just four of the thirteen titles written by women. We share the concerns Katy Derbyshire expressed in her piece for The Guardian and would certainly like to see more books by women translated into English. However, we also acknowledge that the figure of 30% is close to the current percentage of translated fiction written by women published in English – and that the percentage among the submitted titles may have been even lower. Unfortunately, with the list of submissions a secret, we are unable to test that suspicion.

Despite the pleasing geographical spread, some areas of the world have missed out. There is nothing from the Arabic-speaking world, and Russian, once again, seems to have fallen out of favour. The largest oversight, however (and one also referred to by Eileen Battersby in her commentary in The Irish Times), is the total omission of books in the Spanish language. In a very strong year for Spanish-language literature in English, we find it surprising (to say the least) that not one of these books made it onto the final list. We would like to mention just a few of these books at this stage to support our point: The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas; In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina; The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila; Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera; My Documents by Alejandro Zambra; Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías. Of course, some of these titles may not have been submitted (again, we are unable to clarify this), but we do find this oversight puzzling.

Still, despite these issues (and the omission of László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, winner of the American-based 2014 Best Translated Book Award, when one of the MBIP judges was on the panel), the Shadow Panel is happy to accept the official judges’ decision and will not be calling any titles in this year. However, as always, we reserve the right to create our own shortlist, one which may diverge from the official decision. We look forward to reading, reviewing and discussing the thirteen long-listed titles – and we hope the official judges will enjoy seeing our take on their decisions.”

So, the judging of the Man Booker International Prize begins by us, the readers, and the Shadow Jury of 2016, who surely are as passionate about literature as the official judges.