Judging the EBRD Prize 2022

This year, for the second year running, I’ve had the pleasure of judging the EBRD Literature Prize, opening a window on to a host of novels that might have otherwise passed me by. It’s probably not a good thing for a fiction editor at a literary magazine to admit to: surely there’s a rigorous, scientific process to what gets selected for review. And there is, or at least as close to it as I can manage – but the odd thing does slip through the net. This is another way of saying that I simply don’t have space to cover everything that deserves covering. Last year, it took the EBRD Prize for me to properly notice The King of Warsaw. This year, once again, various hidden gems came glittering into the light.

The prize, which is now in its fifth year, was designed by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (in collaboration with the British Council) to champion “the literary richness of our regions of operations” – almost forty countries in which the bank has offices, stretching from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia, the Western Balkans and the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. Any literary fiction from these nations that has been translated into English and published in Europe is eligible. Many of these countries don’t see a great flow of their literatures into English and so the prize is, among other things, an opportunity to celebrate marginal voices. It is also financially generous: €20,000, to be split between the winning author and translator.

This year had a particular resonance, given the geopolitical shocks being felt across the region following Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine. And there were indeed books submitted by Russian and Belorussian authors, as well as Ukrainian ones.

My fellow EBRD judges were the critic and broadcaster Alex Clark; Kathryn Murphy, an associate professor at the University of Oxford and a fellow at Oriel College; and the translator, poet and editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk. All are also regular TLS writers.

Our shortlist of ten was announced in March and featured a colorful cast of characters, including a nineteenth-century detective housewife, a Soviet virologist, a Kyrgyz storyteller and a Czech first-person narrator taking us through a millennium of her country’s history. We all had our personal favorites in this list who didn’t make it through. I particularly enjoyed Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a novelization of a screenplay the author wrote in the late 1980s, based on a real-life episode, in which plagues escapes from a research laboratory in the late-1930s Soviet Union and very nearly rampages through Moscow. “Contagion meets The Death of Stalin”, enthused the TLS‘s reviewer Sophie Pinkham.

Also tremendous fun (and previously little known to me) was the Zofia Turbotynska detective series by Maryla Szymiczkowa – actually the husband-and-husband duo of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyniski. In Karolina, or the Torn Curtain, the redoubtable middle-class housewife Zofia teams up with the police to uncover the mystery of her murdered maid, all the while ensuring that this season’s jam is properly prepared. Set in 1890s Krakow, and brilliantly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in a period diction that is wry without being obtrusive, the novel crackles with wit and intrigue.

Although there was plenty of good-natured debate about how to boil down our shortlist of ten to three – including a good measure of devil’s advocate – there wasn’t, at the end, much dispute. I’d love to reveal tales of juices rows across the zoom screen – but, in this case, it would be a lie.

Two of the three finalists had indeed passed me by: Boat Number Five by Monika Kompanikova (an intense, tense novel, featuring a neglected twelve-year-old girl who comes into the charge of a pair of baby twins) and The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau (a wild howl of a novel, starring a Greek matriarch intent on settling old scores). The truth is that I’d be hoping to cover the Kompanikova for a while, but it ended up being one of those books that sit around demanding attention as the calendar whirls by and the literary TLS fiction pages continue to be filled. The Corteau I feel even more guilty about: I vaguely remember its coming in, I vaguely remember looking at it and thinking, once again, that it looked like it had potential. And then the opportunity for space gradually closed.

The third novel – and eventual winner – was The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan: a book we did cover when it first appeared in English last year. Our reviewer, Amelia Glaser, found of Dante in this narrative of man who crosses a war-torn Donbas in Ukraine to pick up his nephew from a residential school. She described it as “a lyrical story of a man at once intimately familiar with, and irreparably alienated from, his native region”.

There was plenty for the judges to wonder about here. Would this feel like too much of a political choice? Were we biased by the fact that one of our judges – Boris Dralyuk, who was born in Odessa – knows the territory so well? Had the full-scale invasion, which began right in the middle of our judging, affected our ability to think about the book objectively?

In the end, however, all these things fell away. We chose The Orphanage because we thought it was the best book: a novel worth reading in any context, and at any time. It has been brilliantly translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, who had to juggle with various different registers, along with the novel’s own – highly political – reflections on the movements between the Ukrainian and Russian languages. The Orphanage is a wonderful piece of literature, and I’m honored to have played my part in helping to give it a platform.

The EBRD Winner (€20,000 split between author and translator)

The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan

A schoolteacher, Pasha, travels across the war-torn Donbas in Ukraine to pick up his nephew from a residential school. The pair then travel back home together. Belying the simplicity of this storyline is Serhiy Zhadan’s extraordinary, explosive, tender, angry and poetic novel of a country riven by conflict, and the absurdities, banalities, horrors and moments of human connection that war occasions. Characters fade in and out of the narrative, their actions often oblique and mysterious. Pasha’s surroundings constantly change but form a grim continuum. Events occur quickly and without warning, but the sense is one of time stretching on. Brilliantly translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, The Orphanage is an extraordinary accomplishment.

The other two finalists (€4,000 split between author and translator)

The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau

You wouldn’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of the Greek matriarch Katerina. Many have. In Auguste Corteau’s ebulliently ferocious howl of a novel, the author ventriloquizes his own late mother in all her fury, ardour, partisanship, aspiration and mental anguish. Taking us through her early years of poverty to her latter life of affluence, via a series of setbacks and betrayals, betrayals and errors of triumph judgment, of slights, real and perceived, Corteau traces a life, a family, and a world. Katerina is opinionated, unyielding, thrusting, deluded and nightmarish. She is also loyal and loving. The Book of Katerina is a beautifully controlled swirl of chaos told in a unique voice, excellently rendered by Claire Papamichail.

Boat Number Five by Monika Kompanikova

A devastating portrait of the neglected margins of post-communist Bratislava in the 1990s, Boat Number Five is vivid, surprising – and deeply disturbing. The twelve-year-old Jarka is unillusioned, experienced beyond her years, but still a child, who sees the world through child’s eyes. She lives with her neglectful mother in a tower block, barely supervised. Her main escape is an old allotment that was once her grandfather’s. And it is here that she brings a pair of infant twins in whose possession she suddenly, and alarmingly, finds herself. Monika Kompanikova’s novel is compassionate and suspenseful, filled with jeopardy at every turn, and Jarka – crisply voiced by the translator Janet Livingstone – is a brilliantly memorable heroine.

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