EBRD Literature Prize

2021 shortlist

About the shortlist for the EBRD Literature Prize 2021

Each of these novels is, in its own way, compelling, shocking, enchanting, memorable, brilliantly rendered and entirely original.” So said Toby Lichtig on the announcement of the three shortlisted novels for the EBRD Literature Prize 2021.

Read the press release

The three shortlisted novels, in alphabetical order, by author, are:
 

The Pear Field
Writer: Nina Ekvtimishvili
Translator: Elizabeth Heighway
Publisher: Peirene Press
Language: Georgian
Country: Georgia
The King of Warsaw
Writer: Szczepan Twardoch
Translator: Sean Gasper Bye
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Language: Polish
Country: Poland
Mr K Released
Writer: Matei 
Vişniec
Translator: Jozefina Komporaly
Publisher: Seagull Books
Language: Romanian
Country: Romania

 

These three novels – from Georgia, Poland and Romania - reflect a range of languages, cultures and styles and tell us stories about lived experiences in the past and present.

In May 2021, the EBRD’s Vanora Bennett interviewed the writers and translators of the shortlisted titles about their books, their inspiration and the art of transation. Read her stories below

What the judges say about the 2021 shortlist

Read what Toby Lichtig and his fellow judges Ana Aslanyan, Julian Evans and Kirsty Lang have written about these three shortlisted novels for the EBRD Literature Prize 2021.  

The Pear Field

Toby Lichtig (Chair of Judges):

In an isolated “residential school for the intellectually disabled” on the outskirts of Tbilisi, a group of children – from the very young to the almost adult – traverse a world of abandonment, neglect and abuse. Looking out for one another, while remaining acutely alert to the necessity of individual self-preservation, they run riot, fantasize, scrap and play, while attempting to negotiate the callous adult world. Narrated in a clear, fluid prose – brilliantly captured by Elizabeth Heighway – Nana Ekvtimishvili’s novel is vicious, funny, totally enchanting and teeming with life.

Anna Aslanyan:

Full of observation, heart-rendering without being melodramatic, the novel portrays otherness in one its most extreme forms, telling stories of rejected children from a deeply humanist, dark yet life-affirming perspective. Nana Ekvtimishvili's take on Georgian reality packs a punch on many levels, delivering on every promise it makes in the very first pages, and Elizabeth Heighway's translation is a joy to read. This engaging story, told with skill and compassion, features just the right amounts of realism, brutality, irony, sadness and, ultimately, hope.

Julian Evans:

Nana Ekvtimishvili’s novel is set in a most unpromising place, a care home in a suburb of Tbilisi for children with special learning needs – or as the locals call it, the School for Idiots. At The Pear Field’s centre is the sassy, unintimidated Lela, who is eighteen and can leave but has nowhere to go, so she waits and makes plans. Her life and the other children’s are fashioned by violence and abandonment, yet throughout this parable of survival, so persuasively translated by Elizabeth Heighway, you are struck by the universes they make with each other, and haunted by their urgent universes of the heart.

Kirsty Lang:

This debut novel from a Georgian filmmaker is a moving but unsentimental portrait of a group of children in the former Soviet Republic who have been abandoned by the adult world in a residential school for the so-called “Intellectually Disabled”. Although suffused by tragedy, this is not a depressing book. The bonds of friendship that form between the children and the way they look after each other in the face of a cruel and neglectful adult world make it an uplifting read.

The King of Warsaw

Toby Lichtig (Chair of Judges):

Szczepan Twardoch’s evocation of late 1930s Warsaw is an intense, vivid, compulsive portrait of a world of violence and fast-living, criminal fraternities and political turmoil. Set against a backdrop of rising fascism and anti-semitism, and starring the unforgettable character of Jakub Szapiro – a Jewish gangster on the up – it seethes with vendettas, lusts, loves, greed, righteousness, fury… and the hope of a better life. Brilliantly translated by Sean Gaspar Bye, whose tasks involved mixing Polish street slang with Yiddishisms, it is at once a pulp thriller, a linguistic feast, a historical tapestry and a devastatingly clever excavation of memory.

Anna Aslanyan:

In this stylish, hard-hitting novel Szczepan Twardoch holds many threads together by endowing the narrator with remarkably vivid flashbacks, deftly rendered by the translator Sean Gasper Bye. The workings of memory are revealed through the memoirist's desire to understand his old self; what propels the narrative is the uncertainty behind his motives. Is he writing to recreate the past in minute detail or to come to terms with it? As a broad picture of Poland on the eve of the second world war unfolds before our eyes, we gradually decipher the story. “There's no meaning in that, it's just what happened”, a refrain punctuating the text, serves as a vindication of an objective, cold documentary approach to a work of fiction based on real events.

Julian Evans:

The King of Warsaw, located in a time and place that will be unknown to many readers as it was to me – the Jewish underworld of pre-war Poland – is a novel of immense energy and, it must be said, violence. With the stain of European fascism spreading, Jakub Szapiro, boxer and gangster enforcer, is aware of the threat to his community but cannot tear himself from the city he has risen to rule. Vividly characterised, cinematically plotted, Szczepan Twardoch’s world is one in which violence underwrites every transaction; but he has also created a narrative of extraordinary ingenuity and speculative playfulness that, outstandingly translated by Sean Gasper Bye, will remain in readers’ minds long after the last page is turned.

Kirsty Lang:

This is an unflinching depiction of a Jewish organised crime group in 1930s Warsaw. The protagonist, Jakub Szapiro, is a boxer turned enforcer, a Tony Soprano-like figure who enjoys instilling fear in others but loves his family and would never hit his own children. Fascism is on the rise and violence hangs over Poland, but Jakub isn’t frightened because violence is his commodity. In Warsaw’s underworld, he is royalty. This is a visceral, compelling page-turner, and not for the faint-hearted.

Mr K Released

Toby Lichtig (Chair of Judges):

To call Matei Vişniec’s novel “kafkaesque” barely scratches the surface of what Mr K Released is all about: it lives and breathes the great Czech writer unabashedly and with total flair. To attempt a homage of this nature is little short of audacious, and Vişniec (in translation by Jozefina Komporaly) brilliantly pulls it off. A man – Kosef J – is unexpectedly released from prison one day, having spent many years behind bars for an undisclosed crime. He is now free to go – but why, and where to? Bewildered, curious and looking for an answer, he soon finds himself lost on the other side of the prison system.

Anna Aslanyan:

A timely and clever parable of democracy, this book allows you to see freedom in a new, blinding light. Matei Vişniec is a rare example of a playwright able to reinvent himself as a novelist. To turn a great work of literature, The Trial by Franz Kafka, inside out is a great idea in itself; here it is also brilliantly executed. The book, translated by Jozefina Komporaly, reminds us that while the word “Kafkaesque” may have been worn thin with use, it still applies to our world in more ways than we are willing to acknowledge.

Julian Evans:

Purposely cloaking himself in Kafka’s mantle, Matéi Visniec has written a deliciously surreal fable exploring the step-by-step obverse of his novel The Trial. In a maze-like narrative simultaneously alienating and comic, his hero Kosef J, imprisoned for an unspecified crime, is baffled by his sudden release and what he is supposed to do with his freedom. Much of the cumulative power and unsettling entertainment of Visniec’s narrative lies in his sly enacting, episode after episode, of his everyman protagonist’s fearful reluctance to embrace freedom, and his parallel underlining of the psychological obstacles by which we, his readers, also trap ourselves.

Kirsty Lang:

Mr K Released is an homage to Franz Kafka’s The Trial.  It’s about a man who is unexpectedly released from his prison cell after a very long time for an undisclosed crime. But he so institutionalised that he cannot comprehend what his sudden liberation means and is unwilling to leave the prison compound. This is a delightfully surreal examination of freedom which mirrors Romania’s transition from totalitarian rule to Western-style democracy.