Finalists for the 2021 International Booker Prize

A few weeks away, on June 2, the winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced. The six novels in the running range widely in their characters, from 16th century peasants to futuristic employees (human and humanoid), and also in genre, from horror to memoir. The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the U.K. or Ireland. Several of this year’s contenders intrigue me, especially this first one, a fact-based story cloaked in fiction.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut will be available in September here in the States, published by New York Review Books, unless, of course, it wins. Sometimes, in those cases, the publication date moves up. From the Booker Prize description: “Using extraordinary, epoch-defining moments from the history of science, When We Cease to Understand the World exists in the territory between fact and fiction, progress and destruction, genius and madness.” The Guardian review refers to it as a “nonfiction novel” and says: “Books of popular science usually celebrate the wondrous achievements that applied mathematics has wrought in the realms of physics, chemistry and cosmology. Labatut, born in Holland and resident in Chile, will have none of it.” Albert Einstein and equations of general relativity, the great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, and Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battling over the soul of physics are among the scientists appearing in the book, which sounds seductively compelling for its facts — and for the story Labatut wants to tell with his fictional spin. Translated by Adrian Nathan West from Spanish.

Éric Vuillard caught my attention a few years ago with his prize-winning novel Order of the Day. (It won the French 2017 Prix Goncourt award.) I ambitiously purchased the original French (L’Ordre du Jour) and while I could read it with the help of a translation app, it became so tortuous I gave up. There are no plans to attempt that with Vuillard’s newest, The War of the Poor. This historical contender showcases the radical German preacher Thomas Müntzer and the German Peasants War (1524-1525) fought between the comfortable Protestants and the wretchedly poor ones. From the description: “Rural laborers and the urban poor, who were still being promised equality in heaven, began to question why they shouldn’t have equality here and now on earth. …They were led by a number of theologians, one of whom has left his mark on history through his determination and sheer energy. His name was Thomas Müntzer, and he set Germany on fire.” Kirkus Reviews describes Vuillard’s history as, “a slim book in which every word is important, one that deserves to be read multiple times.” Translated by Mark Polizzotti from French.

This year’s shortlist also includes science fiction with The Employees by Olga Ravn. It’s described as a story that probes what it means to be human, and it takes place in a setting far from earth and our present time. The narrative derives from statements of employees on the Six-Thousand Ship who are a mix of mortal and immortal, born and created. From the Booker Prize description: “When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming deeply attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike start aching for the same things: warmth and intimacy, loved ones who have passed, shopping and child-rearing, our shared, far-away Earth, which now only persists in memory.” Translated by Martin Aitken from Danish.

Also among the contenders, there’s a collection of short stories, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez. The Guardian says: “If you want to wince, flinch, and momentarily panic when you switch on a light, this is a book for you.” The stories are said to be in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges and like the work of today’s Samanta Schweblin and Carmen Maria Machado. From the Booker Prize description: Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women. The stories walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror, but with a resounding tenderness toward those in pain, in fear and in limbo.” Kirkus Reviews says the stories are “insidiously absorbing, like quicksand” and should not be missed by enthusiasts of weird fiction and literary horror, in their starred review. Translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish.

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory retraces the lives of the author’s Russian Jewish ancestors. More than 400 pages in length, it’s a book that Kirkus Reviews says is “lyrical and philosophical throughout,” giving it a starred rating. It does appear to be more study than escape for the reader by way of the structure, as Stepanova mines her ancestry with fragmented elements. From the book’s description: “Dipping into various forms―essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue, and historical documents―Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.” The Guardian review gives the best snapshot of the book, from all the sources I’ve read: “Partly, what Stepanova wants to do is to rescue the story of the lives of her family from a catastrophist narrative of Russian 20th-century history, and convey the ordinary daily continuity of their experience, their tangled, opaque whole lives.” Translated by Sasha Dugdale from Russian.

Finally, another book translated from French, At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop is a novel about Senegalese soldiers fighting for France on the Western Front during World War I. The story sounds all at once powerful and mesmerizing but also gut-wrenching for the madness that overtakes the soldier Alfa at the death of his friend. From the Booker Prize description: “Alfa Ndiaye and Mademba Diop are two of the many Senegalese tirailleurs fighting in the Great War under the French flag. Whenever Captain Armand blows his whistle they climb out of their trenches to attack the blue-eyed enemy. But one day Mademba is mortally wounded, and without his friend, his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone amidst the savagery of the trenches, far from all he knows and holds dear. He throws himself into combat with renewed vigour, but soon begins to scare even his own comrades in arms.” A slim novel that’s won high praise from many media outlets. I have a feeling this one shouldn’t be missed. Translated by Anna Moschovakis from French.