Small presses loom large on International Booker prize longlist

Alison Flood

Some of the smallest publishers in the UK are doing the heaviest lifting seeking out the best translated fiction, with the longlist for this year’s International Booker prize dominated by tiny presses at the expense of their wealthier rivals.

The £50,000 award, which is split evenly between writer and translator, is for the finest translated fiction from around the world, with previous winners including Korean bestseller Han Kang and Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Settings for the 13 novels up for this year’s prize range from Iran – in Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, narrated by the ghost of a 13-year-old girl fleeing her home after the 1979 revolution – to South Africa, in Willem Anker’s Red Dog, described by judges as “a novel of serpentine, swashbuckling sentences that capture the mounting cruelty of the colonial project”.

Nine of the books are published by independent presses, including Anker’s novel, which is translated from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns and published by Pushkin Press, and Azar’s, by Europa Editions, whose translator from Farsi has chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Judge Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France’s centre for international writing, said the presses had not been a concern when reading the 124 novels submitted: “It was only after that discussion that we looked back and saw the list was now made up of nine independent publishers. What this shows is the incredible work being done to identify these books and bring them to the fore. They’re taking risks in exciting ways, bringing out ambitious and relevant fiction,” said.

New Edinburgh imprint Charco Press also makes the lineup for Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron, a feminist retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic, Martín Fierro. Judges said it “must have posed an enormous challenge to the translators”, Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh, “one they have faced with inventiveness and poise”.

Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin is up for the award for a third time since 2017 for her novel Little Eyes, having previously been longlisted for Mouthful of Birds and shortlisted for Fever Dream. Little Eyes, translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish and published by independent Oneworld, is “a deft dystopia set within touching distance of the present that lays bare our contemporary obsession with watching and being watched”, according to the judges.

The award-winning Dutch poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who uses the pronoun they, is nominated for The Discomfort of Evening. Translated by Michele Hutchinson and published by Faber & Faber in March, their novel follows a girl whose family disintegrates after the death of her older brother. According to the judges, it “reveals the shocks and violence of early youth through the prism of a Dutch dairy farm … the strangeness of a child looking at the strangeness of the world”.

Related: Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq review – a vision of degraded masculinity

French controversialist Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is one of the four titles from major publishers to make the lineup. Published by Penguin Random House imprint William Heinemann, it follows a man who takes a new antidepressant because he feels he is dying of sadness. Judges described it as “a novel about a repugnant man, and such is the level of artistry that our moral universe is turned on its head”.

Eight languages are represented in the longlist: Spanish, French, Farsi, Afrikaans, Norwegian, German, Japanese and Dutch.

“In times that increasingly ask us to take sides, these works of art transcend moral certainties and narrowing identities, restoring a sense of the wonderment at the expansive and ambiguous lot of humanity,” said chair of judges Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature and spoken word at the Southbank Centre. “Whether reimagining foundational myths, envisioning dystopias of disquieting potency, or simply setting the world ablaze with the precision of their perceptions, these are books that left indelible impressions.”

This year’s dominance of small presses comes as Dr Richard Mansell, from the University of Exeter releases analysis into the books that have previously been longlisted for the award and for its predecessor, the Independent foreign fiction prize. Looking at previous years, Mansell found that while between 2001 and 2005 the “big five” publishers were responsible for 55% of the titles. This fell to 47% between 2006 and 2010 and just 36% between 2016 and 2019. This trend, said Mansell, was not evident for non-translated fiction, with the percentage of titles longlisted for the Booker prize from the big five publishers consistently higher.

“This data indicates more prestige is still amassed in non-translated fiction, but it shows change is happening right now in translated fiction. Positions of power of publishers are not as stable as they were,” said Mansell.

The shortlist for the International Booker will be announced on 2 April, and the winner on 19 May.

2020 International Booker prize longlist

Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans (Pushkin Press)

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi (Europa Editions)

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish (Charco Press)

The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German (Scribe UK)

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside from French (William Heinemann)

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German (Quercus)

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogowa, translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese (Harvill Secker)

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins from French (Peirene Press)

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish (Oneworld)

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison from Dutch (Faber & Faber)

Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Harvill Secker)