On Monday evening, Han Kang was announced as the winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her novel The Vegetarian. For the first time, the prize was being awarded based on the merit of a single book, having merged with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. The £50,000 prize was divided equally between Kang and the book’s translator Deborah Smith.
Although the prize was won by a Korean author, three of the six authors on the shortlist and four of their translators were Europeans. Does this suggest bias by publishers who commission books for translation or by the panel who whittled the long list down to the shortlist? Or are the finest literary minds really concentrated in Europe? This seems unlikely, but the prize and the surrounding media attention offer an unmissable chance to champion and celebrate literature from the European continent.
Elena Ferrante from Italy, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey and Robert Seethaler from Austria are the three European authors who made the shortlist. It was the first time a Turkish or Austrian author was shortlisted for the prize, although Pamuk has already won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2007) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2006).
Pamuk’s shortlisted novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is set in Istanbul and translated by fellow Turk Ekin Oklap, at twenty-seven the youngest translator on the list. Described by one reviewer as “a love letter to the city in all its faded, messy, dusty glory,” the novel tells the story of street vendor Mevlut, who follows his father to Istanbul at age twelve from their poor village in the province of Konya. “The reader follows Mevlut through the sprawling plot,” the reviewer writes, “which winds its way in and out of the poorer neighbourhoods and the ancient alleys and passages of Istanbul.”
Set in a remote Austrian mountain village, Seethaler’s A Whole Life could not be further from the hubbub of Pamuk’s Istanbul. At the heart of this “gentle, tender work”, in the words of one reviewer, is Andreas Egger, “a solemn man of few words but deep, complex feeling that he seldom articulates.” He falls in love, marries, is widowed and returns to his valley after fighting in the Second World War to find it indelibly changed by modernity, to which he adapts with quiet stoicism.
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final instalment in the Neopolitan Novels series. The series follows the lifelong friendship of Lila and Elena, who grew up as best friends in a poor, violent Neopolitan neighbourhood. One reviewer describes the series as ‘an extraordinary epic that bridges six decades and unfolds into a portrait of a neighborhood, a city in transition and a country lurching through the second half of the 20th century into the next.’ In this final novel Elena returns to Naples after leaving her husband and struggles to navigate her relationships with Lila, her family and the city she tried to escape.
Art is “about being in someone else’s skin”, writer A. L. Kennedy once said. The three European novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize invite us deep beneath the skin, not only of the protagonists, but also of the vividly conveyed settings they inhabit – Istanbul, Naples and the Austrian Alps. Guided beyond superficial markers of difference, we are invited to contemplate universal themes. What are the moments, big or small, that make us who we are? Do our choices dictate our happiness? How does our environment shape us?
As the EU referendum approaches, we should take this chance to celebrate both the wealth of superb fiction that the continent produces and the message these fictions convey – beneath our wonderfully different skins, we share a humanity that knows no border, flag or nationality.
By Judith Vonberg