Yan Lianke from China? Or Han Kang from South Korea? International Man Booker Prize to be decided tomorrow
Winner of £50,000 award will be drawn from a six-strong shortlist that also includes Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante, José Eduardo Agualusa and Robert Seethaler
The shortlist for 2016’s International Man Booker Prize, whose winner is announced tomorrow, is a veritable who’s who of the world’s most exciting novelists. There is one acknowledged master, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk for A Strangeness in My Mind, and Italy’s Elena Ferrante, the enigmatic darling of the global literary scene.
Inaugurated in 2005 and held every other year until 2015, the International Man Booker expanded the brief of the long-running Man Booker Prize and provided a life-time achievement award. Its first winner was Albania’s Ismael Kadare, followed by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. When this duo was succeeded by a trio of admittedly great north Americans – Alice Munro, Philip Roth and Lydia Davis – the competition risked dovetailing into the main Man Booker which rewarded English-speaking writers from the Commonwealth. Indeed, Canada’s Munro could technically win the main prize.
In 2015, a new International Man Booker was unveiled. Held annually, it would judge the year’s best novel in English translation, with the £50,000 (HK$560,000) prize split between author and translator. Americans would have to settle for being eligible for the older Man Booker Prize.
In addition to Pamuk and Ferrante, this year’s shortlist includes Angola’s José Eduardo Agualusa and Robert Seethaler from Austria.
Asian fiction has made an especially strong showing. Japan’s 1994 Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe made the longlist with what is rumoured to be his final novel, Death By Water. Two others progressed to the final six: Yan Lianke represents China with The Four Books (translated by Carlos Rojas), while South Korea’s Han Kang is also in contention with The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith).
At first glance, the two novels offer a contrast in styles. Yan Lianke is an established international writer. Han, like most South Korean novelists, has only just begun to be translated into English.
The Four Books is a sprawling, complex and ambitiously structured portrait of a profound trauma in China’s recent history: the Great Leap Forward, between 1958 and 1962. “The narrative spans China’s notorious Great Steel-Smelting campaign and Great Leap Forward,” Yan told the Man Booker website. “People were required to meet impossible production quotas, such as having to harvest several ten thousand jin of grain for every mu of farmland.”
As Yan’s translator Carols Rojas told me, such ambition is typical of China’s foremost agent provocateur. “Serve the People! offers a parodic, and rather sexually explicit, take on the Cultural Revolution. Dream of Ding Village offers a somewhat unconventional perspective on the global AIDS pandemic. Lenin’s Kisses offers a highly original perspective on the mutual imbrication of Maoism and capitalism in contemporary China.”
Yan’s fusion of horror, political fury and, as Rojas puts it, “bracing black humour that combines pathos with bleak absurdity” has proved inflammatory enough that no mainland Chinese publisher dared go near it. Rojas admits he is uncertain why the Great Leap Forward is such a sensitive subject in China. He is careful to add that there hasn’t been an outright, government-authorised ban, but welcomes The Four Books’ release in Hong Kong in 2010 via Taiwan’s Rye Field Press.
Compared to this broad canvas, the scope of Han’s The Vegetarian seems considerably more intimate. The opening describes a seemingly mundane marriage that is thrown into the most peculiar crisis when Yeong-hye decides quite suddenly to stop eating meat. From this unassuming premise, Han unravels, first, a relationship, then a family and finally very nearly an entire society, posing along the way unsettling questions about the body, sex, gender, family and freedom.
Here, perhaps, is where the two novels find common ground. Both are intensely concerned about making connections between personal and societal breakdown, and strive to render that in imaginative prose. Both depict characters defined by seemingly rigid moral worlds that disintegrate before our very eyes. Both meditate on the body, violence, shame and art.
The Four Books’ prose frequently fragments in concert with his protagonists as they are subjected to often humiliating, and occasionally surreal forms of re-education. When over-farming lays waste to once fertile land, the prisoners are reduced to eating bird manure and eventually cannibalism. For Yan himself, the narrative form is the thing, as he explained to the Man Booker. “The heart of the novel lies not in its descriptions of the hardships undergone by the intellectuals, but rather in its use of an innovative narrative style, which I call ‘mythorealism’. In this way, the novel attempts to offer a new perspective on Chinese history and contemporary reality, together with a set of unique challenges faced by Chinese intellectuals.”
Han is similarly interested in the collapse of individual minds and bodies and how they might represent deep fault lines in South Korean society. Her prose pits the glacial order of Yeong-hye’s husband (his self-satisfaction and limited horizons) against the wild, mysterious and often violent inner life of Yeong-hye herself: her renunciation of meat is, notably, triggered by a gothic dream vision. “To declare ‘I’m a vegetarian’ as my protagonist Yeong-hye does is to make a big statement,” Han told Mark Reynolds of Bookanista. “For her it is a way to protest against the violence humans live with and take for granted. The reason that I chose vegetarianism is that it could be seen as a perfectionist way of being pure, in that it’s not committing any kind of violence.”
Han says fiction is her means to explore what it means to be human. “In 2013 I wrote a novel about a young boy who was killed in the Gwangju massacre of 1980 when I was nine years old, and I think this incident had a big influence on my writing. It was the basis of that unending question, what it means to be human and to accept the fact that we are human.”
Yan is inspired by a quest of a quite different sort. “It is because of a feeling of fear and also betrayal that I have persisted in my writing,” he told Words Without Borders. “I am referring to a fear of power, of reality, of meaningless life, and even of the inevitability of death, and precisely because I fear all of this, I therefore hope to be able to use my writing to resist and betray it.”
Either writer would be a worthy winner of 2016’s International Man Booker. The same can be said for all six novels on the shortlist. We shall discover who it is tomorrow.