A world on the page: Boyd Tonkin salutes the 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist

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The Independent Culture

The shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize always throws up surprise rhymes and curious contrasts. This year's half-dozen finalists for the £10,000 award (divided equally between writer and translator) is more strikingly singular then ever. Those in quest of a soundbite-size story will seize on the two utterly compelling – though sharply different – candidates from Colombia, Evelio Rosero and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. But the 45 million-strong homeland of GG Márquez has a thriving culture of fiction, and no one would raise any eyebrows at a brace of contenders from Italy or Spain.

The exiled pair excel in distinct ways. Ma Jian, who left the People's Republic for Hong Kong and then Europe, creates commanding epic fiction out of the Chinese democracy movement of 1989 and its brutal defeat. Ismail Kadare, once again working with translator David Bellos from Jusuf Vrioni's French version of his Albanian original, spins medieval Ottoman history into a lapidary parable of resistance rewarded and tyranny forestalled.

Between Israel and east Africa, AB Yehoshua shows with sweep as well as depth how affection – and curiosity – can overcome boundaries. And, rooted to her spot in contemporary Paris, Céline Curiol's vulnerable station announcer can manage the times of the trains but not the state of her soul.

The announcement of a winner by the judges (Linda Grant, Kate Griffin, Fiona Sampson, Mark Thwaite and myself) comes on 14 May. Once again, we thank Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger for their superb support in keeping this prize on track and on time. Please read our transporting shortlist, and share the final stage of this uniquely fascinating journey through a planet of stories.

Voice Over

Céline Curiol
translator: Sam Richard (from the French)
Faber & Faber, £10.99

Arriving at the Gare du Nord will never feel the same again after this haunting and unsettling debut fiction. A lonely young woman, a diffident observer of the the game of Parisian bourgeois life, works there as the disembodied voice who announces departures. Then she falls in self-tormenting love with an unattainable man. So a journey into thwarted passion and childhood terrors begins, which the author – a New York-based journalist – steers with a touching and assured command of her heroine's inner world.

The Armies

Evelio Rosero
Anne McLean (Spanish)
MacLehose Press, £16.99

In the remote mountains of Colombia, retired teacher Ismael enjoys small joys and old friendships in spite of his country's civil strife. Then the endless conflict, between ill-defined bands of soldiers, guerrillas and paramilitaries, strikes home with shocking force. A massacre, and his wife's abduction, lead Ismael and the townsfolk into a limbo of fear and confusion. This finely-wrought but softly-spoken novel of love, war and grief not only laments a people's tragedy but celebrates the fragile virtues of everyday life at the end of its tether.

The Informers

Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Anne McLean (Spanish)
Bloomsbury, £15.99

In the Bogota of the late 1980s, a high-minded journalist has published a book about a family friend who fled Nazi Germany. Bizarrely, his father, a famously incorruptible teacher, vehemently attacks his son's work. Why? Through a deft story-telling architecture, we return to the 1940s, a German émigré milieu, and the trauma that shaped his father's life. The novel expertly fashions a misty mood of doubt and secrecy in a history-shadowed Colombia that feels as if mature Le Carré had wandered into the labyrinths of Borges.

Friendly Fire

AB Yehoshua
Stuart Schoffman (Hebrew)
Peter Halban, £12.99

Daniela, teacher and lover of language, travels from Israel to east Africa to comfort her bereaved brother-in-law at his archaeological dig. Behind his grief lies memories of another tragedy that links personal loss with political anguish. At home, husband Amotz runs his lift-engineering business and makes mind-shifting discoveries of his own. A profound portrait of a marriage, but also a study of cultural border-crossings and the toll they exact, this novel by one of Israel's modern greats entwines private life with public fate.

Beijing Coma

Ma Jian
Flora Drew (Chinese)
Chatto & Windus, £17.99

This fearless epic of history and memory establishes the exiled Ma Jian as the Solzhenitsyn of China's amnesiac surge towards superpower status. Ma's panoramic, hour-by-hour drama of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the violence that crushed them combines with scenes from the forgetful aftermath. A nation slips into oblivion and greed as a survivor languishes alone. For all its documentary richness, the novel grips and moves as fiction on a human scale: it not only commemorates a suppressed fight for freedom, but helps to renew it.

The Siege

Ismail Kadare
David Bellos (French, from Albanian)
Canongate, £16.99

Albania's émigré master often uses the bloody medieval past to explore his region's sinister modern history, and this fable-like adventure is no exception. The Ottoman pasha leads a vast army towards intractable Albania, where a citadel cannily resists. The invaders quarrel and plot as an unimaginable defeat looms. Meanwhile, a chronicler finds that his predicted story of triumph founders in the fog of war. Mystery and suspense fuel a classic parable of power and its pitfalls, as an empire begins to falter in its tracks.