#RivetingReviews Special: Thomas de Waal 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 THREE by Thomas de Waal

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

A whimsical detective novel of 1890s Krakow that is also a rich historical portrait of a time and place.

Krakow, 1893. A bored and tenacious housewife visits an old people’s home, starts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of its residents and becomes a rather successful amateur detective. The fun of the book is not just in the detective story but in how the authors—a gay couple who have adopted a female pseudonym—bring to life old Krakow in all its aspects as it is experiencing a Polish cultural renaissance.

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

Lyrical and brutal first-person tale of a pointless local conflict in the Bosnian war.

Bosnia’s answer to Catch-22. Faruk Šehić spins a sequence of stories which seem to be semi-autobiographical about a man who is forced to command a group of men in an especially pointless local Muslim-on-Muslim conflict in the war of the 1990s. Traumatized and jaundiced, he tells a brutal tale of violence in lyrical and arresting prose.

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

The compelling story of a young Slovak woman at a home for the disabled and her mental fragility.

A first-person story of a young woman from Central Europe who goes to work as a volunteer in a home for the disabled in the south of France with a mixture of other foreigners. Boredom turns to anxiety, fragility and then mental breakdown. The prose breaks down as she does. Ivana Dobrakovová is the Slovak translator of Elena Ferrante and she displays some of the same psychological acuity, but her novel is bleaker.

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

A cinematic sweeping novel of dispossession, Siberian exile, motherhood in 1930s Russia.

In 1930 a young Tatar woman is exiled to Siberia together with people from her village, a group of threadbare intellectuals, an old German doctor who has half-lost his mind, all led by a Soviet commissar who expects to leave, is forced to stay and forges bonds with his prisoners. The novel is epic in sweep but far more than just a saga. The Russian title of the novel is Zuleikha Opens her Eyes—it is also about the eye-opening life journey taken by a poor Muslim woman.

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

Thirty fragmentary but interlocking stories of exile, loss and love in Hungary.

Thirty stories of exile, love, loss and displacement, in present-day Hungary, but some of which reach back further into the 20th century told with precision and irony. A disparate cast of characters are connected in ways that often only we, the reader, see. Many of them are looking for a home, for completeness in their life, which only Krisztina Tóth can provide as their author.

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

A Soviet prison memoir that will make you laugh—a Georgian intellectual’s fond memories of his fellow inmates.

As the Soviet Union is coming to a close, Georgian intellectual Levan Berdzenishvili is confined in a Russian prison-camp with a selection of other dissidents: nationalists, liberals, Jews and anti-Semites and one arch-Stalinist. His literary memoir is fond and very funny, despite its subject matter. It’s less about himself than the others—a diverse group thrown together in conflict, friendship, brilliant conversation and what is effectively a leadership seminar for the coming independence of their nations.

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

Wise, subtle, heart-breaking—the story of a Lithuanian village and the fate of its Jews in 1941.

Grigory Kanovich evokes a Lithuanian village, with its old farmers and Jews, and timeless customs with the freshness of Thomas Hardy. But this is 1941 and this little world is invaded first by the Soviet Communists, then, even more menacingly, by the Germans. The community is ripped apart. The Jews must hide or perish, the Lithuanians each make individual choices. Kanovich’s bullets all fly off-stage. Instead we get individual lives, original characters and impossible choices, told subtly and unforgettably.

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

Russia’s most famous literary detective navigates his country’s Civil War of 1918 in an erudite thriller.

Erast Fandorin has become Russia’s most popular literary detective, a dare-devil version of Sherlock Holmes, with a penchant for all things Japanese. This is his swansong. Boris Akunin plunges him into the turbulent waters of the Russian Civil War, where he dodges not just the Reds and Whites, but Black and Green anarchists. It’s a thrilling ride.

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

The life of an Egyptian student in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union of the 1970s told with cool documentary realism.

The banality of the last years of Soviet ‘stagnation’ and of an Egyptian student’s life in a shared hostel is captured in exact prose that reproduces the reality of everyday existence in the Soviet Union in almost numbing detail. You live the anxiety and despair of the narrator inside his skin. Relationships are cheapened, politics is despised, the Soviet Union’s supposed friendship for foreign nations is exposed as empty.

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

A poetic evocation of the destruction and enforced silence experienced by Turkey’s Alevi-Zazas in 1938.

In 1938 the Alevi-Zaza people of Dersim in eastern Turkey were crushed by the Turkish military, along with their culture, language, and religion. In Every Fire You Tend a young women in present-day Istanbul brings back to life the fragments of what her community lost, through stories and myths and the tale of her own grandmother who went through the purgatory of Dersim. It is poetic, at times deeply touching, often opaque, beautifully translated by Nicholas Glastonbury.

Reviewed by Thomas de Waal

Category: Reviews


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