French Authors Lead International Booker Prize Shortlist

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

The shortlist for the prize, arguably the world’s most significant award for literature translated into English, was announced in an online news conference on Thursday.

Éric Vuillard, a past winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier book award, is perhaps the highest 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 itinerant priest who led popular uprisings against feudal lords in what is now Germany. “At its best, ‘The War of the Poor’ feels urgent, breathless,” Boyd Tonkin wrote in a review for The Financial Times.

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

The International Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best book translated into English and published in 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 about $70,000. The author and translator split the prize equally.

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

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

  • “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed,” by the Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez, a short story collection about death, sex and the occult, translated by Megan McDowell. “Largely it’s insatiable women, raggedy slum dwellers and dead children — those who are ordinarily powerless — who wield unholy power in this collection, and they seem uninterested in being reasonable,” Chelsea Leu wrote 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 through a dead aunt’s possessions, then uses them to reconstruct her family’s story. It is “a kaleidoscopic, time-shuffling look at one family of Russian Jews throughout a fiercely eventful century,” wrote John Williams in a review for The New York Times.

  • “When We Cease to Understand the World,” by Benjamín Labatut, a Dutch-born author 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 muse about humanity’s destructive power. It has received mixed reviews in Britain. “Labatut’s brave experiment with form has produced an unstable compound that is a laboratory curio, not an entirely new genre,” Claire Lowdon wrote in The Times of London. But John Banville, in The Guardian, called it “ingenious, intricate and deeply disturbing.”

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

Several of the titles are far from straightforward novels, containing elements of memoir and historical nonfiction, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the chair of the judges, said at the news conference. “This is a fantastically vigorous and vital aspect of the way fiction is being written at the moment — people are really pushing the boundaries,” she said.

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