#RivetingReviews Special: Rosie Goldsmith 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 ONE by Rosie Goldsmith, Chair of the Judges

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

Vivid evocation of Polish city of Cracow at the turn of the 20th century and a glittering comedy of manners – masquerading as a crime novel. It stars the sprightly and original Zofia, a great gossip, novel reader and aspirational aristocrat turned detective, “a woman with a vivacious heart” who “wanted more out of life”. The research into Cracow’s architecture, history, art and politics is circa 1893 is superb – a wonderful read by two acclaimed Polish authors masquerading as one!

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

The ugliness, cruelty and degradation of war set against striking images of great beauty, the natural world and love. Under Pressure is related with lyricism, profound insight and uncompromising detail in a series of connected vignettes as experienced by a young Bosnian officer over the four years of the Bosnian War in Europe. The Sarajevan author Faruk Šehić, nicknamed ‘the Bosnian Hemingway’, himself fought as a young officer, which gives this novel exceptional depth and authenticity.

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

Short, sharp, devastating novel with a strong plot and dark humour; a novel of love, alienation and mental breakdown related by unreliable narrators with youthful vigour and lyricism but never allowing the language and structure swamp the story and characters. It would be too easy to see this novel as a metaphor for the social and health care problems of contemporary eastern Europe but it certainly shines a harsh light on them. A sensitive study of mental illness by a gifted writer.

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

Twentieth-century tragedy of Stalinist oppression and Siberian exile based on the true story of a Tatar Muslim peasant woman called Zuleikha or ‘little hen’. Zuleikha is young and obedient girl in an oppressive marriage of appalling domestic abuse and slavery. When her husband is murdered she is forced to leave her Tatar village and go into exile – another form of purgatory but she is forced to fight her fate and becomes stronger, tougher and able to love. This is a satisfying and sensitive ‘big Russian read’ about love and horror on an equal level, with wonderfully rounded characters, beautiful descriptions of nature and everyday detail and full of emotion.

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

A clever, satisfying and original novel consisting of thirty individual chapters – named after human body parts – forming a body of stories about marginalized people across several decades and across the whole of Europe; each story is sharp, fresh, seductive and beautifully written. The intricate architecture of the novel reveals its treasures slowly but sensitively. Its grand designs are matched totally by the exquisite writing from Hungary’s famous poet.

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

A moving and unexpectedly upbeat fictional memoir about one man and his remarkable survival. Sacred Darkness is a lively and un-self-pitying autobiographical novel by and about an erudite and entertaining Georgian dissident politician and scholar who spends “the best years” of his life in the 1980s in a remote Soviet prison camp. This gulag prison houses a strange, closed society of incarcerated intellectuals, artists and scientists, who turn out to be great characters with great stories. A brave and warm book.

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

A literary microcosm of world history related through the lives of ordinary people. This moving and elegant novel of fine character portraits, told in restrained but beautiful prose, is set in a small town at a watershed moment of Lithuanian history when ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust enter the lives of the local Jews and non-Jews alike, dividing neighbours and families into persecuted and persecutors. A perfect narrative arc starting in a cemetery and ending in a cemetery and peopled with memorable characters, such as Danuta, Eliesheva and Gedalye, is never heavy-handed or breast-beating in spite of its horrific and heart-breaking subject matter. 

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

After twenty years of Erast Fandorin detective novels, the brilliant, best-selling historian-novelist Boris Akunin has decided to ‘say goodbye’ to his most famous creation and the universe he inhabited. It’s 1918 and Erast Fandorin has been in a coma for nearly 4 years, missing out – amongst many things – on the First World War, the fall of the Tsars and the October Revolution. He has a lot to catch up on. Who or what are the Reds, Whites, the Black Truth, the Artels, Chekists, Bolsheviks and Anarchists? Akunin’s humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of Russian history are magnificently on display. Less a detective story for this final Fandorin but a delight for all fans.

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

A seductively readable portrait of 1970s Moscow by a visiting Egyptian historian through his fictionalised autobiography, newspaper clippings and journals. There’s no plot, no analysis and no emotional engagement so you might expect this austere, sanitized narrative to disappoint – but it’s the opposite: the style matches the message and the era.  There’s profound historical truth and empathy here created through the distance and disillusion, matching the personal crisis and feeling of futility felt by the protagonist. It’s as if Albert Camus’ The Stranger inhabited Sonallah Ibrahim’s psyche.

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

From the outset clearly a significant novel, described as, “a literary Guernica” and “a hymn to life”. I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of the 1937/38 Dersim massacre until I read this novel.  Thousands of Zaza-speaking Alevi Kurds died – but Sema Kaygusuz’s grandmother survived and with her passion for storytelling her wonderful granddaughter brings the Alevi Kurds back to life and “fashion(s) a shape out of time” with her stories of figs, beauty, olives, wisdom and ancient Ottoman-era narratives.  The lyrical allusions and flourishes and the exquisite translation help this tragedy soar into the literary firmament.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

Category: Reviews


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