Tuesday 21 November 2017

Making a big IMPAC - the shortlist for this year's prize is eclectic as ever

K Bernardo Kucinski
K Bernardo Kucinski
Orkney Twilight
Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Brief Loves that Live Forever Andreï Makine
Horses of God
Burial Rites
Blood on the Snow

John Boland

There are writers on the shortlist for this year's International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award who will be unknown to most people, but then that's always been the way with a prize that ranges throughout the world for worthy candidates and that embraces books in many languages - so long as they've been translated into English.

Indeed some of the eventual winners over the past 19 years will have been unfamiliar (and possibly remain so) even to those alert readers who pride themselves on keeping up with literary trends.

David Malouf was an obscure name when he won the inaugural award in 1996 for Remembering Babylon and he's hardly a household name today. Nor are such more recent winners as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Rawi Hage, Gerbrand Bakker or Juan Gabriel Vasquez.

No doubt it's for this reason that the award generates less brouhaha than the Man Booker prize, where slavish British media outlets make headlines over its competing English-language frontrunners and express shock and awe at those famous novelists who haven't made the shortlist cut.

Yet if the IMPAC award doesn't inspire such media frenzy, it's certainly made its presence felt, not least over the €100,000 it gives to the winner - twice that of the Man Booker. This amount struck many as excessive when the award was inaugurated 20 years ago, as if Dublin City Council and productivity company IMPAC were intent on riding the burgeoning Celtic Tiger and on demonstrating that size really is everything.

Indeed, there were commentators who argued that those in charge would have been better off dividing the prize into a number of categories, in the manner of the Whitbread/Costa awards, and giving four winners €25,000 each - an impressive amount by anyone's standards. But that was not to be and the prize defiantly remains as it was conceived.

And through nominations by libraries throughout the world, it has certainly highlighted the work of writers who otherwise might have languished in obscurity. And in the process it has recognised the talent of two future Nobel laureates - Herta Muller, who won in 1998 for The Land of Green Plums, and Orhan Pamuk, winner in 2003 for My Name is Red.

Equally striking is the number of renowned writers who were shortlisted for the prize but never won. These include John Banville, Sebastian Barry, VS Naipaul, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, John McGahern, William Trevor and Salman Rushdie.

Three Irish writers have proved successful: Colm Toibin in 2006 for The Master; Colum McCann in 2011 for Let the Great World Spin (which also won the prestigious National Book Award in America), and Kevin Barry two years ago for his first novel, City of Bohane. And McCann is being considered again this year for TransAtlantic.

It can safely be said, though, that most readers in this country won't be acquainted with some other of this year's 10 nominees, who hail from England, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria, Morocco, the United States and Russia.

Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deals with race and racism in its story of two teenagers in Lagos who fall in love under a military dictatorship which forces one of them to flee to America.

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, from Morocco takes the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca as its subject, the story being told from the afterlife by one of the bombers.Harvest, by the much-admired English novelist Jim Crace, concerns a sleepy English village in a timeless landscape that comes under threat from a trio of outsiders. The book has received many plaudits for its hypnotic atmosphere.

Tasmania-born Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North has already won the Man Booker prize and its gruelling story of an Australian POW forced to work on the Thai-Burma death railway in 1943 might well win out here, too.

Burial Rites, by Australian-born Hannah Kent, is her literary debut and tells the story of a young woman convicted of murder in the Iceland of the early 19th century and sent to an isolated farm to await her execution.

K, by Brazilian journalist Bernardo Kuckinski, tells the story of an elderly father who searches for his disappeared daughter during that country's military dictatorship.

Russian-born but French-writing Andrei Makine's The Nominees is an impressionistic and philosophical rumination on the nature and fragility of love in the former Soviet Union.

Someone, by noted American writer Alice McDermott, concerns the ordinary life of an ordinary woman through childhood, adolescence, motherhood and old age.

American writer Roxana Robinson's Sparta tells of the homecoming by a young Marine Corps officer from Iraq and of the difficulties he faces in the America to which he has returned.

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann, weaves the lives of fictional women through the stories of aviators Alcock and Brown, abolitionist Frederick Douglas and former Northern Ireland deal-maker George Mitchell.

The McCann book, written with his characteristic fluency and his acute feeling for women characters, could be an eventual winner, but the beauty of this prize is that it's just as likely to honour a writer of whom few have heard. And if the winner happens to be one of the three on the shortlist that was originally written in another language than English, its translator will receive €25,000 of the overall €100,000.

That won't be known until June, but in the meantime each of the books will be more fully assessed in these pages.

Between now on June 17 we will be reviewed these 10 nominees in these pages. Next week: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

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