What are the books in the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 like?

By Vanora Bennett

10 books chosen for the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize longlist

See the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 longlist

There is extraordinary breadth of scope in the ten novels, from regions as far apart as Central Asia and the Middle East, which have been longlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize 2019. (The prize, now in its second year, is for books from the regions where the EBRD works that have been published in English translation. The writer and translator of the winning entry share a €20,000 cheque).

A few entries on the longlist are from intriguing newcomers to fiction. Jacek Dehnel, a poet, painter and TV arts presenter in Poland, is there with Lala, his first novel, written two decades ago when he was just 20. It looks back to a pre-war Poland “laced with gilt and stucco in the cities, and heavy with the smell of cow pats and fruit lying in the grass in the countryside.”

Shatila Stories is by nine authors, combining their real-life experience as refugees from Syria living in Shatila camp in Lebanon into a daring nine-voice piece of collaborative fiction on life after trauma. According to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, “this remarkable novel isn’t about the refugee voice; it is born from it and told through it. On every page, the glint of hope for dignity and a better life is heartbreakingly alive.”

Ozgur Mumcu is a journalist who has risked jail to write about politics in Turkey, and the son of an assassinated writer. But his debut novel, The Peace Machine, is a witty, carnivalesque adventure through time, shedding mocking light on contemporary politics as it follows the adventures of an Ottoman writer of erotic fiction early in the 20th century, as he looks for a machine that can influence people’s minds to end violence before war finally breaks out.

Yet most of the authors on the list are not brilliant newcomers, but very big names indeed. They’re writers already feted (or hated) in their home regions and languages, and far beyond. Elias Khoury, for instance - whose My Name Is Adam tells the tale of Adam Dannoun, discovering how the terrible truth behind his birth is linked to the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 - is both Global Distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University and widely acknowledged as the finest living Arabic novelist.

Equally well known is Olga Tokarczuk, author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the Polish winner of the 2018 International Man Booker prize. Tokarczuk is a controversial figure in her native Poland as a feminist public intellectual on the very left of her country’s often very conservative political mainstream. Her novel – a brilliant mix-up of murder mystery, dark feminist comedy, vegetarianism primer, and homage to Willam Blake – was adapted into a movie last year. The Guardian reported that one disapproving journalist called it a “deeply anti-Christian film that promoted eco-terrorism”. 

The glittering fame of these big authors should give comfort to risk-averse readers who might otherwise feel nervous that that an international literature prize would be all unpronounceable and unknown authors discussing obscure matters of local interest from small countries, far away.

A more internationally minded readership segment is just as delighted by the idea of sharing the award between author and translator. This is an unusual and inspired arrangement, since translators seldom get much recognition in an English-language culture where translated literature makes up only four per cent of what we read.

Yet translators play a vital role in bringing to life cultures beyond the ken of English speakers, and contributing to the literary life of the English language, enriching our sense and sensibility, in the process.

“Think of the translator not only as an actor but also as a costume designer,” says Rosie Goldsmith, Chair of the Judges of the EBRD Literature Prize 2019

“A novel is written twice if it is in translation – first by its author, then by its translator. The work in English represents for me a confluence of sensibilities. It is on two creative parallels. The translator is also a writer.”  

The translators in this year’s line-up are a fascinating bunch in their own right. In one example of the complexity of the business of writing, translating, publishing and just living across so many metatextual parallel lives in different languages, Donald Rayfield, translator of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devils’ Dance, actually learned the Uzbek language specially to translate this book by an author who fled his native Uzbekistan in 1992 and whose work was banned there.

Izmailov now works for the BBC World Service in London. Rayfield is a translator and academic in Russian and Georgian (both entirely different from Uzbek) who had read The Devils’ Dance in its Russian version. With the author’s guidance and a surreal-sounding shelf full of dictionaries - Uzbek-Russian, Ottoman Turkish and Persian – he started work on the Uzbek-English translation from what he admits, in his afterword, was “an initial position of deplorable incompetence.”

This vignette in itself is a crash course in the multifaceted cultural and linguistic realm in which the book is set – Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Ottoman, Great Game imperial geopolitics, the wistfulness of exile – and mirrors the novel’s theme of writing and rewriting history.

Izmailov’s story features a 19th-century slave-girl in a lost novel, the occasional British envoy/spy enjoying the Great Game in Central Asia, and a real-life 1930s Uzbek writer (author of the lost novel) imprisoned under Stalin, who is told by a secret policeman that “nothing in this world disappears without trace”.

Different though these 10 remarkable novels might be, one of the most striking things about them is that they almost all share an obsessive preoccupation with the past – and specifically with some traumatic event from the history of the first half of the 20th century.

Whatever this might be – Stalin’s Soviet purges, Arab loss in 1948 Palestine, the ravaging of Poland in the Second World War, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, or the many horrors of the First World War – this trauma has visibly only partly healed. There are still century-old wounds everywhere.

One possible reason for this harking back to the unhealed wounds of the past might be that these countries - with many subsequent years of turbulent history, and many enormous changes within living memory that have radically changed modern life - also live with a still unclear vision of the future.

The EBRD’s mission is to help clarify that future, giving the countries where it works economic and financial tools to chart the way forward to greater certainty. For an organisation that prefers to find practical solutions for the future rather than soul-search over the past, hosting a book prize in which these anxieties find such eloquent expression is, in itself, a courageous act - and a coming of age.

Vanora Bennett is an award-winning journalist and author of six novels, one shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel award and all translated into multiple languages, as well as two non-fiction books about Russia. 

See the EBRD Literature Prize 2019 longlist