#RivetingReviews Special: Boyd Tonkin 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 TWO by Boyd Tonkin

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

A clever, witty – and historically informative – crime caper in fin-de-siècle Krakow.

This high-spirited mystery set in 1890s Krakow works both as a witty entertainment and a smart, even scholarly, recreation of a vanished time and place. The two writers behind “Maryla Szymiczkowa” invent a wonderfully sharp and droll heroine, in the shape of the upwardly-mobile Zofia. They people their plot with characters and situations that restore the Habsburg Empire’s Polish lands to deeply enjoyable life. Behind the period farce of the whodunnit, though, “Szymiczkowa” also fills in the historical and intellectual background with credible, colourful detail. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation adds to the fun with a wit and flair to savour. 

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

Tales of civil war that balance horror, absurdity and wrenching pathos.

In an obscure corner of the wars in former Yugoslavia, a young Bosnian officer fights breakaway rebels and later suffers post-traumatic episodes. Mentally if not physically, he’s still wounded on the battlefield. Fiercely written, unsparing yet compassionate, these stories of war’s absurdity and its aftershocks build into a coherent portrait of a stricken soldier in a crippled society. Creeds and uniforms matter little as Faruk Sehic, in Mirza Puric’s slangy and salty translation, plunges us into the senseless horror of civil strife. If his combat scenes shock and bewilder, the pursuit of oblivion in their aftermath has a forlorn desolation of its own. 

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

An idyllic summer in France becomes a mesmeric descent into mental hell.

Blanka, Ivana Dobrakovova’s unreliable but sympathetic narrator, travels to Marseille from Bratislava to work as summer volunteer at a home for disabled people. Yet this everyday episode of youthful adventure turns to nightmare as she descends into a breakdown marked by paranoia, disorientation and acute anxiety. Dobrakovova follows the heroine’s first-person slippage into fantasy and panic with skill and sensitivity. At the same time, Blanka remains a perceptive observer of the social and emotional unease of her co-workers in France. The voice created by Julia and Peter Sherwood’s translation does full justice to the hectic momentum of this slide into terror and confusion. 

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

A richly painted saga of exile, resistance and self-discovery in Soviet Siberia.

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.

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

Connected stories that write memories of love and trauma into flesh and bone. 

These 30 interlinked stories, each named for a body-part, build into a fictional whole that intrigues, beguiles and disturbs. 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. Owen Good’s translation matches a relaxed, familiar tone with admirable verbal precision and finesse. 

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

A gallery of prison portraits that breaks down gulag walls with wit and intellect. 

From a hospital bed in the US, a Georgian former dissident recalls the fellow-inmates who sustained him during their period of incarceration in the twilight of the Soviet era. Although a book of gulag tales, Berdzenishvili’s gallery of portraits avoids solemnity. It even sidesteps sorrow, as it pays exuberant tribute to the geniuses, eccentrics, fixers and schemers who made his prison years more bearable. Translating from the Russian, Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner convey all the infectious high spirits and deep moral seriousness of activists who fought for political freedom but, in jail, escaped thanks to the shared life of the mind. 

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

A loving, charming recreation of Jewish shtetl life in the toughest of times.

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. In Yisrael Elliot Cohen’s English version, this loving devotion to the annihilated Jewish culture of eastern Europe never sinks into nostalgic kitsch. It remains keen-eyed and quick-witted throughout. 

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

Old Russia’s Sherlock Holmes grapples with the aftermath of revolution.

Boris Akunin brings the series hero of his detective novels into the era of the Russian Revolution to present its chaos and intrigue through new eyes. Awakening his sleuth Fandorin from a coma, Akunin pieces together a brightly coloured, deftly composed mosaic of Red and White conspiracy and subterfuge in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup. As always with the Fandorin novels, the reader’s pleasure comes from the erudite and elegant investigation of the byways of Russia’s history and culture as much as from the solving of mysteries. Andrew Bromfield again translates Akunin with all the verve, pace and sophisticated wit his work demands.

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

An Egyptian student gives compelling voice to the drift and ennui of 1970s Moscow

In cold, flat and neutral prose, Sonallah Ibrahim portrays 1970s Moscow as a frozen landscape of desolation and anomie. His narrator is an Egyptian postgraduate haunted by the oppressions and defeats of his homeland, who drifts through the relative privilege of the foreign student’s life with a joyless hedonism that masks rising despair. Ibrahim conveys the emotionally stunted, two-dimensional quality of his pursuit of sex, distraction and oblivion with an art that voices but does not share the protagonist’s nihilism. If his narrator carries Egypt’s sorrows to the stagnant Soviet Union, he also revives the very Russian drift and doubt of the “superfluous man”.  

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

Ghosts of massacre and exile haunt a poetic quest for a lost past through memory and myth.

A family’s fragmented accounts of atrocity and exile fuel this poetic novel of memory and mourning. Sema Kaygusuz’s self-doubting narrator recreates the pain and persecution undergone by the Alevi Kurds of eastern Anatolia in prose of a sensuous, allusive lyricism, binding family experience to history and myth. Nicholas Glastonbury’s translation moves with authority between the different registers deployed in her multi-layered Turkish text. Metaphors and parables drawn from everyday life and ancient legend combine in a work that self-consciously foregrounds the story-telling process itself. The results are hypnotic and evocative, with an unflinching awareness of the loss and grief that stokes this literary artifice.

Reviewed by Boyd Tonkin

Category: Reviews


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