A mirror for mad times

Boyd Tonkin introduces the winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and reports on a closely fought contest
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The Independent Culture

You know how it ends: everybody dies." So begins the French writer Frédéric Beigbeder's Windows on the World. His extraordinary novel-essay-memoir about 11 September 2001 and its cultural aftermath has won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in Frank Wynne's scintillating translation for Fourth Estate. Beigbeder and Wynne share the £10,000 award, generously supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. This time, we also decided to name an official runner-up: the Russian writer Irina Denezhkina's debut collection of stories, Give Me (Songs for Lovers), translated by Andrew Bromfield for Chatto & Windus.

You know how it ends: everybody dies." So begins the French writer Frédéric Beigbeder's Windows on the World. His extraordinary novel-essay-memoir about 11 September 2001 and its cultural aftermath has won this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, in Frank Wynne's scintillating translation for Fourth Estate. Beigbeder and Wynne share the £10,000 award, generously supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. This time, we also decided to name an official runner-up: the Russian writer Irina Denezhkina's debut collection of stories, Give Me (Songs for Lovers), translated by Andrew Bromfield for Chatto & Windus.

To be exact, the line above is how half of Beigbeder's central narrative begins - after the introductory quotes from Walt Whitman, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson and Tom Wolfe that tell you so much about the author's loves and affinities, and after the dedications to his daughter Chloë and "to the 2,749" who died in the Twin Towers on that blue Tuesday morning. Minute by minute, this part of the story ticks off the time in the top-floor restaurant of the World Trade Centre's North Tower from 8.30 to 10.28am. Here, on 11 September, a divorced, pleasure-seeking Texan real-estate dealer and his two sons have come for a breakfast treat, only to pass through a soul-shredding but - to such a fearless novelist - not-quite-unimaginable ordeal.

The other part gives us the character "Frédéric Beigbeder", a French dandy (but, crucially, one with much-admired American ancestors) - a trendy intellectual, narcissist and all-round poseur. He takes his own safe breakfast up in the Tour Montparnasse in Paris, picking over his pampered and blinkered past in a bid to explore how he, or anyone, might make sense of the event that has reshaped our world since that day.

This is a subject and a setting that, tackled with the urgency that it demands, might test to destruction the limits of conventional fiction. With his snatches of memoir, cultural commentary, polemic and even wild comedy, Beigbeder does more than relieve the intolerable pressure of a story set within the tower in the minutes before its collapse. He makes of that burnt and buckling glass and steel not just a window on our world but a damning mirror for Western dreams and delusions, and in particular for feckless children of affluence such as the narrator: "Men with no instruction manual. Men with no solidity. Defective men." For him, the vacant hedonism that hit its early-Seventies peak just as the WTC rose has now crumbled as completely as its towers. What endures - for Beigbeder, for the doomed family he creates, for all witnesses and survivors - is the ability to love. "Love alone gives me the right to hope," concludes his narrator. "What will survive of us is love," wrote Philip Larkin. How piquant to find the toast of hip literary Paris rhyming at last with the glum bard of Hull.

Last week, the New York Times passed this judgement on character, and author: "a hipster nihilist, a publicity hound, a jerk, a self-impressed renegade". But then, in an exemplary critique of this lacerating, exhilarating work, Stephen Metcalf went on to ask: "How is it that in approaching so delicate a subject as 9/11," Beigbeder "has written so funny and moving a book"? How indeed? Perhaps the very arrogance and ambition of his project breaks through into depths of compassion that a more modest or "tasteful" treatment could never touch.

Fortune in fiction may favour not just the brave but the downright foolhardy. So it is with Windows on the World. As the revolutionary Danton cried in 1792, "De l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace". And this, by the way, is also a book about the close but hidden kinship between the French democratic tradition and the audacious American way - its bands, its brands, its movies, its optimism - that Beigbeder so immoderately adores.

In the mid-Nineties, this 39-year-old son of a successful head-hunter and of a translator of romantic novels - Barbara Cartland's among them - bounced out of the world of Parisian advertising into fiction, journalism and publishing. For a decade, Beigbeder has thrilled, shocked and vexed the French literary scene. Think Martin Amis. Think Will Self. Think, closer to his home turf, his fellow enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq - except that Windows on the World shows us where Houellebecq-style lassitude must end and active sympathy and solidarity begin.

Beigbeder's a star in the firmament and a pain in the rear. He excites; he provokes; he divides. And he did all that to our panel of judges: the writers Julian Evans and Michèle Roberts, the editor and translator Margaret Obank, Kate Griffin of Arts Council England, and the author of the present piece. Unsurprisingly, this was not a consensus decision.

Beigbeder commanded a majority vote, but an equally passionate minority backed Irina Denezhkina's ten tales of post-Soviet despair and delirium. Our other contenders, all highly praised, were Chico Buarque's Budapest (translated by Alison Entrekin for Bloomsbury); Xiaolu Guo's Village of Stone (Cindy Carter for Chatto & Windus); Orhan Pamuk's Snow (Maureen Freely for Faber); and Elif Shafak's The Flea Palace (Müge Göcek for Marion Boyars.)

In many ways, Irina Denezhkina may shock readers just as deeply as Beigbeder, with her hilarious, heartbreaking glimpses of Russian youth seeking solace in sex, drugs, drink - and the rock'n'roll that offers to these lost kids a flickering vision of love and loyalty. Since the power of music, from the Beatles and Nirvana to the pilgrimage of Cat Stevens/ Yusuf Islam, haunts Windows on the World from first to last, we can at least agree that pop culture now helps to make global fiction sing.

Both in high-voltage translations, these two works fizz and spit with energy and excitement about the unmapped inner worlds of the early 21st century. Last month, Beigbeder wrote a column for Lire magazine in which he defended the unique radiance of fiction against journalism. He argued that the garrulous media "never speak about the important things in your life... Your memories, your loves, your family, the meaning of your existence, beauty, truth, all of that is in novels and nowhere else". Read our winner, read our runner-up, and I hope that something of that special light will shine.

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