12 May 17 | Chad W. Post

Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo, translated by J. T. Mahany has won the first ever Albertine Prize—a reader’s choice award celebrating contemporary French fiction. The book had to go through two rounds of public voting, moving from a longlist of ten titles, to a three title shortlist before eventually winning.

Here’s a bit from the official press release:

One of Volodine’s funniest books, Bardo or Not Bardo (Open Letter Books) takes place in his universe of failed revolutions, radical shamanism, and off-kilter nomenclature. In each of these seven vignettes, someone dies and has to make his way through the Tibetan afterlife, also known as the Bardo, where souls wander for forty-nine days before being reborn with the help of the Book of the Dead.

Antoine Volodine is the primary pseudonym of a French writer who has published twenty books under this name at les éditions du Seuil, several of which are available in English translation. He also publishes under the names Lutz Bassmann (éditions Verdier) and Manuela Draeger (éditions de l’Olivier and Ecole des Loisirs). Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the “post-exoticism” writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements. Together, these works constitute one of the most inventive, ambitious projects of contemporary writing.

It’s amazing that Open Letter titles have won two major awards over the past week, and spectacular that Antoine Volodine is getting some more attention for his ambitious, fascinating body of work. I want to take two seconds though to sing the praises of J. T. Mahany, who came to the University of Rochester a few years ago, straight out of undergrad, discovered Volodine while he was in grad school, learned all he could about translation, and then won this prize. It’s always gratifying to see someone grow and succeed like that, but it’s especially meaningful that this happened to J. T. Incredibly smart and very humble, J. T. is a perfect exemplar of the hard-working translator. He puts a ton of thought into his translations, and is always open to editing and other suggestions. His attention to detail and his knowledge of Volodine’s gigantic oeuvre makes him an absolute joy to work with. He’s currently getting his MFA from the University of Arkansas, and I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future.

Going back to Bardo or Not Bardo, a couple big fans of the press helped make this award happen. First up, Tom Roberge wrote a piece for the Albertine site about the book:

Volodine’s genius is apparent from the first page. Like all great writers, the most enduring, he approaches his subject matter and characters with a dazzling blend of empathy, pathos, and humor, all of which creates a pleasantly beguiling reading experience. In Bardo or Not Bardo we’re presented with a series of recently deceased individuals who must, of course, pass through Bardo (the Tibetan afterlife) before being reincarnated. Volodine, however, echoing Samuel Beckett’s macabre-absurdist tradition, refuses to allow anyone to attain enlightenment without a certain number of missteps, misunderstandings, and outright failures. These vignettes are rife with both slapstick comedy and cutting political commentary, with mysticism and raw fear, with optimism and dread. Taken together, the collection offers a beautiful symposium on the nature of change and self-awareness, something that is—sadly—very rare indeed, but much needed and greatly appreciated .

And then, after the book make the shortlist, Jeff Waxman gave this presentation.

Thanks to everyone who made this possible, and if you haven’t read Volodine yet, this is a great place to start! It’s available at better bookstores everywhere, and through our website.

And if you’re interested in the background to the prize itself, check out this short video.

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