About the shortlist for the EBRD Literature Prize 2020
"Each novel is fresh and modern but has the breadth and depth of a classic of world literature. Each translation is thoughtful and well-judged, contributing to the creation of three exceptional works of literary fiction." So said Rosie Goldsmith on the announcement of the three shortlisted novels for the EBRD Literature Prize 2020.
The three shortlisted novels, in alphabetical order, by author, were:
Writer: Grigory Kanovich
Translator: Yisrael Elliot Cohen
Publisher: Noir Press
Writer: Krisztina Tóth
Translator: Owen Good
Publisher: Seagull Books
Writer: Guzel Yakhina
Translator: Lisa C Hayden
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Country: Russian Federation
These three novels - from Hungary, Lithuania and Russia - reflect a range of languages, cultures, regions, genres and styles.
Read what Rosie Goldsmith and her fellow judges Vesna Goldsworthy, Boyd Tonkin and Thomas de Waal - have written about these three shortlisted novels for the EBRD Literature Prize 2020.
Rosie Goldsmith: This moving and elegant novel of fine character portraits, told in restrained but beautiful prose, is set in a small town at a watershed moment of Lithuanian history when ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust enter the lives of the local Jews and non-Jews alike, dividing neighbours and families into persecuted and persecutors. A perfect narrative arc, starting in a cemetery and ending in a cemetery and peopled with memorable characters, such as Danuta, Eliesheva and Gedalye.
Vesna Goldsworthy: Reading Devilspel brings back that rare thrill of discovering a great literary classic. In telling the story of the erasure of a small Jewish community in Lithuania in World War Two, Devilspel engages with the whole web of humanity. It examines the nature of love and individual courage, but also, shatteringly, the propensity for evil which is always closer to us than we like to think. It is a work of enormous literary beauty and, equally, of great humanity.
Boyd Tonkin: Grigory Kanovich, a Lithuanian Jewish author in the Russian language, has written a charming novel about a savage time. He weaves a web of bewitching stories from the shtetl life in the town of Mishkine during the Second World War, as arbitrary Soviet power gives way to the genocidal hatred of the Nazis. Yet the novel’s humour and humanity never fade, as Kanovich relishes the quirks, secrets and fantasies of each sharply-etched figure.
Thomas de Waal: Grigory Kanovich evokes a Lithuanian village, with its old farmers and Jews, and timeless customs with the freshness of Thomas Hardy. But this is 1941. This world is then invaded first by the Soviet Communists, then, even more menacingly, by the Germans. The community is ripped apart by war and the Holocaust. The Jews must hide or perish, the Lithuanians each make individual choices. The bullets all fly off-stage. Instead we get individual lives, original characters, impossible choices, told subtly and unforgettably.
Rosie Goldsmith: Each chapter is named after a human body part. Together they form a body of stories about marginalized people across several decades and across the whole of Europe. Each story is sharp, fresh and original. The intricate architecture of the novel reveals its treasures slowly but sensitively. Its grand designs are matched totally by the exquisite writing from Hungary’s famous poet.
Vesna Goldsworthy: The organising principles of this book are impressively complex, yet to read it is simplicity itself. It is like intricate latticework. You can admire Tóth’s skill in putting together the thirty stories which provide the body of the novel, where minor characters in one story suddenly appear as the protagonists in the next, but the book also allows you to forget the writerly craft and enjoy the poignant web of individual lives it depicts.
Boyd Tonkin: From sole to toe, from navel to buttocks, the people who inhabit Krisztina Tóth’s tales find that life – and history – always overrides the dualism that pits body against mind. As memories from the past are written into flesh and bone, the characters encounter one another. Incidents recur, seen from different angles, as we glimpse lives shaken bent, or broken by individual or collective acts of violence.
Thomas de Waal: Thirty stories of exile, love, loss and displacement, in present-day Hungary, some of which reach back further into the 20th century told with precision and irony. Each story is named after a body part, from nose to foot, navel to buttocks, which slowly form a complete picture. A disparate cast of characters are connected in ways that often only we, the reader, see. Many of them are looking for a home, for completeness in their life, which only Krisztina Tóth can provide as their author.
Rosie Goldsmith: Zuleikha is young and obedient girl in an oppressive marriage of appalling domestic abuse and slavery. When her husband is murdered she is forced to leave her Tatar village and go into exile – another form of purgatory - but in her struggle she becomes stronger, tougher and able to love. This is a deeply satisfying and sensitive ‘big fat Russian read’ about love and horror on an equal level, with wonderfully rounded characters, beautiful descriptions of nature and everyday life - and full of emotion.
Vesna Goldsworthy: Zuleikha paints an unforgettably vivid fresco of mid-20th century Soviet history by focusing on the life of one woman, widowed and then uprooted from her backward Tatar village to the vastness of Siberia. The feisty title character, created by Guzel Yakhina in her stunning debut, joins the long line of fictional heroines we have loved in Russian prose – women like Tatyana, Anna and Lara – but Zuleikha is a delightfully different newcomer. Yakhina offers a memorable sweeping novel which manages to be epic and intimate at the same time, with echoes of Tolstoy and Pasternak in its ambition and range.
Boyd Tonkin: Guzel Yakina has fashioned a deeply satisfying saga out of an often-forgotten corner of the huge, grim fresco that made up Stalin’s Russia. After the bloody upheavals of the Revolution, the novel’s Tatar Muslim heroine is deported to Siberia as the Soviet state steps up its war on “kulaks”. Already oppressed by her family, Zuleikha finds in the eastern forests of her exile a space where she can grow into a paradoxical kind of freedom. Generous, picturesque and absorbing, this wide-framed story traces one woman’s struggle for autonomy in the harshest conditions and summons the vast landscapes of Siberia with unflagging zest.
Thomas de Waal: In 1930 a young Tatar woman is exiled to Siberia, one victim of Stalin’s war on landholding peasants. She travels east with people from her village, a group of threadbare intellectuals, an old German doctor who has half-lost his mind, all led by a Soviet commissar who expects to leave, is forced to stay and forges bonds with his prisoners. The novel is epic in sweep but far more than just a saga. The Russian title of the novel is Zuleikha Opens her Eyes—it is also about the eye-opening life journey taken by a poor Muslim woman.