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Archive for February, 2014

When the inaugural Man Booker International Prize was awarded in 2005 to Ismail Kadare (an Albanian author previously unknown to me who now ranks among my favourite writers — especially his novel, The Palace of Dreams), I was overjoyed. Too long had I found the Man Booker Prize sort of dull and full of the same old, same old literary fiction, (often high quality, but rarely surprising). Here, however, was a prize that was “international” in scope and welcomed literature in translation. Just think of the new authors and untapped regional writing that global audiences would be introduced to! The prize is only awarded every two years, so the wait for the next prize was a tortuous one. When it was finally awarded to Chinua Achebe in 2007, I was a little disappointed — not because I think Achebe doesn’t deserve an award for his body of work, but rather because he has received so many accolades and is already part of the World Literature canon. I’ve read Achebe, and I like Achebe, and I think more people should read him. I was just hoping that some lesser known international writer would receive the prize so I could have a new list of titles to work my way through, as I did with Kadare’s works. Instead, I could just nod my head and agree that Achebe’s work is important.

The disappointment I felt at Achebe’s win was insignificant in comparison to the utter despair that has accompanied each subsequent Man Booker International Prize announcement: Alice Munro in 2009, Philip Roth in 2011, and Lydia Davis in 2013. Again, I’m sure each of these writers is deserving of a prize for their body of work, but it is beginning to feel as though the MBI is the consolation prize for deserving authors who’ve been overlooked for the Booker because of the limitations of that prize (awarded only for novels by citizens of the UK, Commonwealth, and Rep. of Ireland – and so we have two short story writers and two Americans who would not qualify for the Booker winning the last three MBIs).

The Man Booker International Prize has betrayed readers all around the globe. Does it not seem strange that an “international” prize has been awarded four out of five times to a writer writing in English? Three times to North Americans? And only once to a writer that wasn’t already a household name in literary circles? Are there so few living authors whose work is available in translation that are worthy of an award for their body of work? They should just call it the Booker Minor Prize and jettison the facade of “internationalism”, because they are doing a great injustice to literatures in languages other than English by failing to acknowledge their contributions to the literary landscape of the world.

The Nobel Prize for Literature usually provides some succour for those of us who crave literature with an international flavour, but the award of the prize to Alice Munro in 2013, while well-deserved, robbed me of that pleasure. (I’m Canadian. I’m already familiar with Alice Munro. Sigh.) And so, I must seek out the smaller prizes for their winners and short lists to sate my appetite for world literature. The Neustadt Prize was awarded in 2013 to Mia Couto, a Mozambican author who writes in Portuguese, and although he is a writer I was already happily familiar with (his novels Sleepwalking Land and The Last Flight of the Flamingo on my list of favourites already), I was at least able to seek out his newest offering, The Tuner of Silences. But where is the recognition for the bodies of work produced by authors such as Park Wan-Suh (Korean), or Cesar Aira (Argentinian), Alessandro Baricco (Italian), Cees Nooteboom (Dutch), and countless others whose works have been widely available in English translation?

In 2005, I had hoped that the Man Booker International Prize was on track to correct this oversight, but alas, I must finally admit that I have been betrayed. The news that next year’s announcement will take place in Cape Town, South Africa does not give me much hope that things will change any time soon. In fact, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer getting the prize (since I now have to take Doris Lessing out of the running, as she has so recently passed on) — again, deserving of a prize for their bodies of work, but again, writers whose works are written in English and are familiar ground in literary circles. My greatest hope is that the 2015 Man Booker International Prize will return to its 2005 form and declare a winner that I’ve never heard of before. But what are the odds?

Update (March 2015): Happily, it appears that the judges read my blog and took my advice to heart (because I am certain they take obscure Canadian bloggers very seriously). Read all about it here: How the Man Booker International Prize Redeemed Itself

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