#RivetingReviews Special: Vesna Goldsworthy reviews the EBRD Literature Prize 2020 Longlist

Introduced by Rosie Goldsmith
Chair of the EBRD Judging Panel and Director of the European Literature Network

This week my fellow judges and I proudly announced our Longlist of ten books for the EBRD Literature Prize 2020. Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers! The judging panel – me, Boyd Tonkin, Thomas de Waal and Vesna Goldsworthy – love our longlist and would like nothing more than for you to read all ten books. So, to whet your appetites, and as all four of us are also authors, critics and journalists, we decided to treat you to our individual reviews of all ten books in a #RivetingReviews special which we’ll run over the next four days – that’s 40 reviews to enjoy, our gift to you and to international literature! The Shortlist will be announced on March 30th and the winner on April 22nd at a gala event at EBRD HQ in London (all welcome). There will be several accompanying events with the selected authors and translators – we’ll keep you informed via our website.


Riveting Reviews: the EBRD Special

DAY FOUR by Vesna Goldsworthy


Mrs Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Szymiczkowa (Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Poland, published by Oneworld

Agatha Christie meets Merry Widow in a whimsical piece of Austro-Hungarian nostalgia.

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing is well-crafted, frothy, camp, and as full of sweets as a fin-de-siècle patisserie. Krakow’s Helcel House, a retirement home run by nuns, may be one of the most dangerous places in Europe, to judge by the number of murders of its old lady residents, but it also has a detective to match, in an ambitious social climber by the name of Mrs Turbot — Zofia Turbotynska. Her powers of deduction and her determination to use them surpass those of Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot. If you have a long train journey or a delayed flight ahead, Zofia might just be better company than Leopold Bloom.


Under Pressure by Faruk Šehić, translated by Mirza Purić, Bosnia and Herzegovina, published by Istros Books

A Bosnian good soldier Švejk gets drunk and high on drugs in a brutal, pointless war.

As an anti-war book, Faruk Šehić’s Under Pressure has a lot of rivals but it is hard to beat for the sheer pointlessness of its war. This fragmentary autobiographical narrative focuses on a small pocket of Western Bosnia where Muslims were fighting other Muslims, and only intermittently the Serbs. Šehić offers an unflinching, brutal portrayal of his own wartime experience where men drink, smoke weed, rob corpses and houses, and start pointless fights with each other when not fighting the enemy. His prose is unadorned, direct, anything but politically correct and it teaches one a lot without trying to teach anything.


Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovova, translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, Slovak Republic, published by Jantar Publishing

An unflinching account of mental unravelling on the French Riviera.

Eastern and Central European countries emerged from many decades of Soviet exploitation with high hopes of new prosperity. Millions used the freedom to travel in order to go West and be exploited – this time willingly – as the cheapest of cheap labour in middle class houses, care homes and on building sites. Few books examine this experience and even fewer are translated into English. Bellevue comes unsparingly close, even though it portrays voluntary rather than paid work. It is a painful account of Blanka, a young and very vulnerable Slovak woman volunteering in a care home for the severely disabled in Marseilles.  This is work that someone so fragile should never have been allowed to do, and that, unsurprisingly, leads to Blanka’s breakdown. Dobrakovova’s impressive ability to depict the increasingly fraught mental state of her narrator is more than matched by her skill in depicting the wretched physical realities of looking after incapacitated bodies — the frontline of care many of us eventually need but very few want to do. 


Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, Russian Federation, published by Oneworld 

A wonderfully cinematic account of one woman’s life amid the displacements of Soviet history.

Zuleikha paints an unforgettably vivid fresco of mid-20th century Soviet history by focusing on the life of one woman, widowed and then uprooted by “dekulakization” from her small and backward Tartar village to the vastness of Siberia. Yakhina’s prose is rich and highly visual. She offers a memorably sweeping novel, with echoes of Tolstoy and Pasternak in its ambition and range.


Pixel by Krisztina Tóth, translated by Owen Good, Hungary, published by Seagull Books

A beautifully constructed body of thirty stories creating an intriguing, pixelated novel.

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.


Sacred Darkness by Levan Berdzenishvili, translated by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner, Georgia (Russian), published by Europa Editions 

A profoundly affecting memoir: I could not imagine the gulag experience narrated with so much humour and humanity.

Sacred Darkness conveys one man’s experience of the gulag in the dog days of Soviet socialism with astonishing immediacy and warmth. It manages the difficult balance between wry irony in the face of an oppressive regime, and uplifting humanity in telling the stories of dissident courage and resilience.


Devilspel by Grigory Kanovich, translated by Yisrael Elliot Cohen, Lithuania, published by Noir Press

A spellbinding literary masterpiece. Why haven’t I heard of Grigory Kanovich before?

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 traffics in the whole web of humanity: the nature of love and individual courage, but also, shatteringly, the propensity for evil which is always closer to us than we like to admit. It is a work of enormous literary beauty and equally great humanity.

Not Saying Goodbye by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield, Russian Federation, published by Orion Books

Fast paced and playful. A work of historical detective fiction from a master of the genre.

Boris Akunin’s celebrated detective Erast Fandorin wakes up from a three year sleep into the post-revolutionary cauldron of the Soviet Civil War. The communist reds are fighting the tsarist whites and they are both fighting the anarchist blacks. It is not always clear who is on which side, but to Fandorin that doesn’t matter as much as catching and punishing the evildoers, regardless of their political allegiances. A satisfying, tautly plotted whodunnit.


Ice by Sonallah Ibrahim, translated by Margaret Litvin, Egypt, published by Seagull Books

A richly evocative portrait of Moscow in the nineteen seventies as seen through the eyes of an Egyptian student.

Ice is a work of haunting existentialist autofiction written in 2010 and based on the Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim’s diaries from his time as a mature student in the Soviet Union in the early seventies. The voice is unforgettable. Numbed, matter of fact, alienated, stranger to both himself and the icy world of real socialism – part Meursault, part Underground Man, yet more fragile than either of them. 


Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz, translated by Nicholas Glastonbury, Turkey, published by Tilted Axis Press

Rarely does silence speak so eloquently: a lyrical and richly allusive novel about the historic trauma of the Alevi community in Turkey.

Sema Kaygusuz novel weaves mythology, allegory, personal and family history to tell the untellable: the inheritance of genocide and rape which haunts the Alevi community. Every beautifully translated page radiates with the pain of suppressed memory.

Reviewed by Vesna Goldsworthy

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