French authors top the list of finalists for the International Booker Prize

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LONDON — The nightmarish story of a Senegalese soldier fighting for France in World War I and a workplace novel set on a spaceship are among six titles shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize.

The shortlist for the prize, arguably the world’s largest prize for literature translated into English, was announced at an online press conference on Thursday.

Éric Vuillard, a former winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, is perhaps the most high-profile author on the shortlist, nominated for ‘The War of the Poor’.

The book, translated by Mark Polizzotti, tells the story of Thomas Müntzer, a 16th-century traveling priest who led popular uprisings against feudal lords in what is now Germany. “At best, ‘War of the Poor’ seems urgent, out of breath,” wrote Boyd Tonkin in a review for the Financial Times.

Several of the other shortlisted titles have received praise from British and American critics, including “At Night All Blood is Black”, by French-Senegalese author David Diop, translated by Anna Moschovakis. Diop’s work, about a Senegalese soldier in the trenches during the First World War, “takes his character to the depths of hell and allows him to flourish there”, wrote Chigozie Obioma in a review for the New York Times.

The International Booker Prize is awarded annually to the best book translated into English and published in Great Britain or Ireland. It is separate from the better known Booker Prize for fiction originally written in English, but has the same prize money of £50,000, or around $70,000. The author and the translator share the prize equally.

The award has helped turn several non-English speaking authors into stars. Previous winners have included “The Discomfort of Evening”, by Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison, and “Flights”, by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.

Alongside “The War of the Poor” and “At Night All Blood is Black”, the pre-selected titles are:

  • “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed”, by Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez, a collection of short stories about death, sex and the occult, translated by Megan McDowell. “It is largely insatiable women, tattered slum dwellers and dead children – those who are usually helpless – who wield unholy power in this collection, and they seem uninterested in being reasonable,” Chelsea wrote. Leu in a review for The New York Times.

  • “In Memory of Memory”, by Maria Stepanova, and translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale. In it, Stepanova digs into the belongings of a deceased aunt, then uses them to reconstruct her family’s history. It’s “a kaleidoscopic, time-spanning look at a family of Russian Jews throughout a ferociously turbulent century,” wrote John Williams in a review for The New York Times.

  • “When We Stop Understanding the World”, by Benjamín Labatut, an author of Dutch origin who lives in Chile and writes in Spanish. Translated by Adrian Nathan West, the book takes the stories of real scientific and mathematical breakthroughs – such as Albert Einstein’s equation for general relativity – and uses them to reflect on the destructive power of humanity. It received mixed reviews in Britain. “Labatut’s courageous experiment with the form has produced an unstable compound that is a laboratory curiosity, not an entirely new genre,” Claire Lowdon wrote in The Times of London. But John Banville, in The Guardian, called it “ingenious, complex and deeply disturbing”.

  • “The Employees”, by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken. It’s a sci-fi novel where the crew members of a spaceship – both human and artificial – are transformed after encountering strange objects on a planet called New Discovery. Danish newspapers praised the book when it was released in 2018. “Olga Ravn has written a challenging and highly original socially critical science-fiction utopia,” wrote Alexander Vesterlund in Politiken.

Several of the titles are far from straightforward novels, containing elements of memoir and historical non-fiction, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the judges’ chairperson, said at the press conference. “It’s an incredibly vigorous and vital aspect of how fiction is written right now — people are really pushing the envelope,” she said.

The winner will be announced on June 2 during a virtual ceremony in Coventry, England.

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