The Booker International Prize, I can leave my house now edition.

And the Winner is:

Blocked in the COVID tunnel, I know when we entered and I’m told there is light at the end, or have I lost my sight (it’s there but I can’t see it)?: So let’s use the time when I used to just see people. I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.


Let’s begin with the duo “unfindable/unreadable” The Employees/In Memory of Memory” no further comments needed.


Next we should move on to the undeveloped: the whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell. Yes, “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed“..


And then there were three! and one frustrated reviewer.


I know, as a professional jury member, books are free, but I object to just 46 pages. “The war of the Poor” was a great idea, well written…. but just as you’re beginning….well you get to the 46th page.


Just what have the Jury done in selecting these books? Was my review of last year’s competition so good that they wanted to eliminate competition? Or are they just not interested in readers?


Which leaves us with two, I guess that’s not so bad, What do you think?

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World‘. An extremely interesting book, just too much information. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

Let me confidently announce that the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be the winner of this prize, All Night all Blood is Black, a fresh view on the madness of war. Winner by default but winner also by merit.

Éric Vuillard ‘The War of the Poor’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The War of the Poor”: In order of reading book number 6.


Because the powerful never give up anything, neither bread nor freedom. It is then at that moment that he utters before them his most terrible words. Before the Crown Prince, Duke John, the Bailiff Zeus, the Mayor and Council of Allstedt, after the sword, the poor, Nebuchadnezzar, and the wrath of God, now Müntzer says: death to impious Monarchs.***


This is the story of the poor and their little known rebellions, first of all in England in the 14th century, of John Wyclif who proned translating the bible into the language of the people, who would then have a direct relationship with God and would not need the corrupt clergy, this of course was not a popular idea amongst the rich. After his death one of his disciples, John Ball fomented a peasants revolt due in part to over taxation which was then carried forward by Watt Tyler who marched on London with upwards of 60000 peasants who looted and beheaded judges. The peasants wern’t really prepared, and when the tide turned tens of thousands were put to the sword.

In the next century came the printing press and the bible was then printed in the language of the people. The revolt then flairs up in Germany lead by Thomas Müntzer who goes further than Luther:


His mass in German raised an outcry. People came from all around Allstedt to listen to the word of God, crowds gathered to hear a priest speak to them, for the first time, in their own language. In the church in Allsttedt, God spoke German.***


Müntzer was full of a vindictive rage against the corrupt Clergy and the ruling classes stirring up the people as part if the great peasant uprising of the early 16th century. Where once again up to 100000 of the the poorly prepared people were slaughtered by the arisocrats armies.

This all too short a book, only 46 pages, only scratched the surface of a passionate subject, of these two interesting excerpts of history.

First Published in French as “La guerre des pauvres” in 2019 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published as The War of the Poor by Other Press in 2020
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Car les puissants ne cèdent jamais rien, ni le pain ni la liberté. Et c’est à ce moment qu’il prononce devant eux sa plus terrible parole. Devant le duc Jean, le prince héritier, le bailli Zeiss, le bourgmestre et le conseil d’Allstedt, après le glaive, les pauvres, Nabuchodonosor et la colère de Dieu, voici que Müntzer dit: il faut tuer les souverains impies.

Il va plus loin que Luther. Sa messe en allemand soulève un tollé. Les gens viennent des alentours d’Allstedt écouter la parole de Dieu, des foules se déplacent pour entendre un prêtre s’adresser à eux pour la première fois dans leur langue. Dans l’église d’Allstedt, Dieu parle allemand.

Mariana Enriquez ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Dangers of Soking in Bed”: In order of reading book number 3.


Their frantic families came to get them without thinking too much about how odd the case was, how unsettling it was that the children should come back all at the same time.


Mariana Enriquez’s Danger is a book of disturbing short stories , mostly about youths and evil or death, such as Rambla Triste and Barcelona’s ghost children or The Well where a the women in a family transfer evil from themselves to their youngest daughter through a witch and via a photo. The story which stood out for me was the most developed and longest in the book “The kids who came back”

In this story, Mechi, a council worker was emloyed to archive the files on the many missing children in the city and despite working with two other women who don’t talk to her in a very noisy office under a motorway flyover, and despite the lack of importance of her work she genuinly feels good about this job:


Since she’d taken over—almost two years before—the archive had received lavish praise. And that was in spite of the fact that it had a merely documentary value: the important files, the ones that mobilized police and investigators to follow up clues about the kids, were in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. Her archive was more useless, a sort of constantly expanding report without the capacity to inspire action.


Suddenly then over a short period of time these children begin to re-appear in the city parks, but exactly as they were when they dissapeared, sometimes many years previously but are by and large accepted into their grieving families as illustrated in the opening quote before being rejected as not being the person that had dissapeared.

This book, as often for me with short stories, left me with a feeling of “undeveloped”. The whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell.

First Published in Spanish as “Los peligros de fumar en la cama” by Anagrama in 2017.
Translated into English by Megan McDowell and published as “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” in 2021 by Granta Books.

Olga Ravn ‘The Employees’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Employees”: In order of reading book number 5.

What are the Booker International Prize Jury doing? From In Memory of Memory my last read, I would have needed auto blood transfusions to keep the yellow jersey and finish the book to this seemingly promising but unfindable book (even Amazon, like em or hate em, if you can’t find it they’ve got it, “normally”). Couldn’t read it, therefore no article!!

Maria Stepanova ‘In Memory of Memory’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“In Memory of Memory”: In order of reading book number 4.


I must have been about twelve. I was hunting around for something interesting to look at. There was plenty of interesting stuff: with every death a pile of new objects appeared in our apartment, deposited just as they were, trapped in a sudden end state, because their previous owner, the only person who could have freed them, was no longer amongst the living.


I don’t know who chose the shortlist for this prize this year but he certainly wanted to make it difficult to follow. I guess there must have been some powerful lobying. I’ve read doctoral theses with far less references. I had assumed this to be a fiction prize but it would appear in this case not and I should confess up front that my Kindle tells I only managed 42% of this particularly long book (I never normally give up during a book).


The opening quote tells us something of the subject, do memories die with the person and what do we do to prolong them, firstly our own before we die and secondly those of others after their dissapearance. How have momories changed and our understanding of them from the time of the handwritten letter to the time of the selfie. Stepanova then takes us through the twentieth century, its pogroms and revolutions, state terror and the Shoah and of the terribly small chance of a Jewish family to have lived through these times intact no matter which choices they had made at the turn of the century.


The children of the turn of the century had three choices before them, and they all looked much the same. Revolution, assimilation and Zionism


How in this situation of mass interruption of the memory line can or should the memories of these whole families, whole communities, whole people be assured. This is as far as I got, the premise seems interesting and should be. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a stubborn reader, good luck with the others.


In contemporary Europe, with its barely healed wounds, black holes, and traces of displacement, a well-preserved family archive is a rarity.


First Published in Russian as “ПАМЯТИ ПАМЯТИ” by Novoe Izdatel’stvo in 2017.
Translated into English by Sasha Dugdale, and published as “In Memory of Memory” in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.

David Diop ‘ At Night All Blood is Black’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“All Night All Blood is Black”: In order of reading book number 1.


Captain Armand says that you need to rest. The captain says that you are truely very brave but also very very tired. The captain says that he applauds your bravery, your very great bravery. The captain says that you will be awarded the Military Cross like me, oh, you have it already. The captain says that you’ll maybe get another. So yes I know I’ve understood that Captain Armand no longer wants me on the battlefield. Behind these words relayed by the elder, military cross, chocolate, Ibrahima Seck I knew, I understood that they’d had enough of my seven severed hands brought back fromm the battle, yes I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they only want temporary madness, mad from anger, mad from suffering, raging mad, but temporary, not continuously mad.


David Diop’s story of African soldiers in the first world war, bringing “savagery”to a “civilised” war as Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator theorises, the enemy over there is particularly afraid of the African’s savagery as his french commanders tell him proudly until he becomes really savage. You can go too far, he learns, in this “civilised” war, as illustrated in the opening quote.

David Diop tells us of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senagaleese soldier fighting in the trenches for France and of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop who dies in no man’s land next to Alfa with his insides on the outside, begging Alfa to finish him but Alfa can’t. So begins this story of Africans in the trenches, with the author telling the story through Alfa who is haunted and influenced by Mademba, David Diop’s namesake. Mademba is killed in noman’s land by an enemy from across the lines who pretending to be dead suddenly pounces and kills him. Alfa takes this up as a modus operandi, lying in wait after the battle, slowly killing stragglers, severing a hand from each victim and bringing them back as trophies. We slowly learn of Alfa’s life in Africa and his relationship to Mademba and by the end of the book we no longer know which of the two of them remains in Alfa’s body, as Alfa says:


I loved Mademba, my more-than-brother. God’s truth I loved him so much, I was sonafraid he would die, I so wanted us to return together safe and sound to Gandiol that I would do anything to keep him alive.


This winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be one of my favourites, a fresh view on the madness of war.

First Published in French as “Frère d’âme” in 2018 by Le Seuil.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

le Capitaine Armand a dit que tu devais te reposer. Le capitaine dit que tu etais vraiment très brave mais très très fatigué aussi. Le capitaine a dit qu’il salue ton courage ton très très grand courage. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais avoir la croix de guerre comme moi, ah tu l’as deja. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais en avoir peut-être une autre. Alors oui je sais, j’ai compis que le capitaine Armand ne voulait plus de moi sur le champ de bataille. Derriere les mots rapportés par l’ainé, croix de guerre, chocolat, Ibrahima Seck j’ai su, j’ai compris qu’on en avait assez de mes sept mains tranchées rapportées chez nous, oui j’ai compris par la verité de dieux que sur le champ de battaille qu’on ne veut que de la follie passagère, des fous de rage, des fous de douleur, des fous furieux, mais temporaire, pas de fou en continue.

J’aimais Mademba mon plus-que frère. Par la verite de Dieux je l’aimais tellement, j’avais tellement peur qu’il meurt, je souhaitais tellement que nous rentrions sain et sauf tous les deux à Gandiol, j’étais prêt a tout pour qu’il reste en vie.

The Booker International…Sort of Confinement Issue

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home once more…Sort of…not really, lockdown but no checks and no one takes any notice here. So another opportunity to beat the jury!

I’ll read the six shortlisted novels, write articles and debate extensively with myself.


Before announcing the definite winner, of course that’s if the jury doesn’t get it wrong again this year


Julia Deck ‘Private Property’


I knew about Annabelle’s hot pants. She had a whole collection, which she wore with high heels when she spotted a sucker at the agency. I’d also noticed to what extent hot pants make the person that wears them amusing, and just how much the listeners suddenly credit then with inimaginable wit.***


The Cardarecs are a middle class hipster Parisian couple, with middle class aspirations, to move from Paris, but not too far, to be able to benefit from more space, to get out doors a little but not to leave their Parisian lifestile behind. in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort.

He, Charles, a long term hypochondriac that she, the narrator, an architect, with their social consciences buy into a new eco-district in the suburbs, energy-neutral, low waste footprint etc. only to find that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Any small set back sends Charles scuttering for his bed. The walls of the houses are paper thin, and the self-sufficient energy system has been under-sized. The Cardarecs could have made a go of it in spite of all this had it not been for their neighbours, the Lecoq family.

In this short sharp concise writing style Julia Deck tells the story of the neighbours from hell, Annabelle from the opening quote, young thirty something and her husband Arnaud, partying loudly into the early hours and eventually annoying the whole neighbourhood. After Charles complains about them in an informal neighbour’s meeting the Lecoq family cat is found dead and cut in half down in the trench in the street meant to bring gas to their houses. Then Annabelle dissapears.

When her body shows up on waste ground Charles is suspected and arrested, Arnaud the husband had been out all night with Patrick Lemoine, a neighbour who avoids going into too much detail about their evening out and as the narrator tells us:


Ok, Lemoine had never been able to get it up, it was a miracle that he had managed to knock her up, and that twice. And what’s more he had doubly lied. It most definitely wasn’t a coincidence that he’d come across Arnaud Lecoq at the Voltigeur the evening Annabelle had dissapeared. They had arranged to meet there and to go on to a private club where they had accidently met some time before and found that they had something secret in common.***


First Published in French as “Propriété privé” by Les Éditions de Minuit in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Je connaissais les microshorts d’Annabelle. Elle en possédait toute une collection, qu’elle assortissait avec des talons compensés quand elle avait flairé le gogo à l’agence. J’avais également noté à quel point les microshorts confèrent de l’esprit à celle qui les portent, et combien leurs auditeurs les créditent soudain d’une verve insoupçonnée.

Oui, Lemoine avait toujours bandé mou, c’était un miracle qu’il l’ai engrossée par deux fois. Et puis il avait doublement menti. Ce n’était absolument pas une coïncidence s’il était tombé sur Arnaud Lecoq au Voltigeur le soir de la disparition d’Annabelle. Les deux hommes s’étaient donnés rendez-vous. Ils étaient convenus de se rendre ensemble dans un club privé où ils s’étaient croisés par hasard quelques temps plus tôt, se découvrant par la même occasion un point commun inavoué.

The Booker Prize – The Short List – Prognostics

This year, thanks to Corona the Booker prize will be discerned on the 19th of November, SO I’m going into prognostics “say it with data”.

I have one month left to finish reading the shortlist and to predict, foresee, guess the winner.

You will see it here first, I’m sure the Booker jury will copy me soon after so here goes!