Books of the year 2014: Fiction in translation

It has been a strong year for fresh versions of the classics

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The Independent Culture

Foreign blockbusters often arrive in English fairly late. Yet few page-turning entertainments can ever have waited so long as Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (translated by Malcolm Lyons; Penguin Classics, £25). These 18 Arabian stories date from the 10th -century and survive in a 14th-century manuscript found in 1933. A few overlap with Tales of the 1,001 Nights; all offer adventure, romance, treasure, lust and magic galore in what Robert Irwin's preface justly calls "very early and impressive examples of pulp fiction".

In a strong year for fresh versions of the classics, Penguin continued its month-by-month re-translations of Georges Simenon's peerless Maigret mysteries. In a handsome hardback, Inspector Maigret: Omnibus 1 (Penguin Classics, £18.99) gathers four stories from the early 1930s. It gives newcomers a taste of Simenon's sombre vision, ruthless insight and impeccable prose. The Time Regulation Institute – Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's eccentric, colourful, ruefully comic saga of mid-century Istanbul and of a Turkey torn between past and future – returned in a splendid new version by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin Modern Classics, £10.99). And Scribe completed its rediscovery of David Vogel – the lost Viennese master who wrote in modern Hebrew – with Married Life (trans. Dalya Bilu, £16.99): his droll, piquant, incredibly vivid novel of post-First World War Vienna, sexual obsession, cultural deracination and wounded civilisation.

As for newer books, the exiled Hassan Blasim deservedly won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ (trans. Jonathan Wright; Comma Press, £8.99): a surreal, compassionate and blazingly inventive collection of stories inspired by the fate of his ravaged homeland. Eshkol Nevo's Neuland (trans. Sondra Silverston; Chatto & Windus, £16.99) combined an absorbing wide-screen yarn about footloose Israelis abroad with a shrewd, far-reaching interrogation of Zionism and its discontents. Several high-profile bestsellers earned their renown. Almost self-contained as a novel of 1970s childhood, Karl-Ove Knausgaard's Boyhood Island (trans. Don Bartlett; Vintage, £8.99) would make an accessible – and mesmerising – entry-point for new readers of the Norwegian writer's multi-volume autobiographical epic. With Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (trans. Philip Gabriel; Harvill Secker, £20), Haruki Murakami returned to 1980s Japan, and a tender, wistful, intermittently mystical group portrait of youthful love and loss. In Look Who's Back (trans. Jamie Bulloch; MacLehose Press, £16.99), the fearless Timur Vermes – a Sasha Baron Cohen of fiction – managed in his satire about an undead Hitler surfacing in Berlin today to hit a stunning array of targets.

For once, UK readers could enjoy a broad spectrum of the best German fiction. Vermes aside, Uwe Tellkamp dramatised the decline and fall of Communist East Germany in his panoramic, immersive chronicle of a 1980s Dresden family, The Tower (trans. Mike Mitchell; Allen Lane, £25). Jenny Erpenbeck, more compactly lyrical, condensed a century of European history into the turning-points of a woman's life in The End of Days (trans. Susan Bernofsky; Portobello, £12.99). And with F (trans. Carol Brown Janeway; Quercus, £14.99), Daniel Kehlmann braided art, religion and finance into a typically effervescent but heartfelt comedy-of-ideas about faith and fakery.

From Belgium, Erwin Mortier transformed the Great War novel into an art of memory. While the Gods Were Sleeping (trans. Paul Vincent; Pushkin Press, £18.99) is the sumptuously imagined testimony of a woman's experience before and after 1914. Further east, in The Dead Lake (trans. Andrew Bromfield; Peirene Press, £12) Russian-language Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov wove a haunting and resonant fable out of the ecological catastrophe of Soviet-era nuclear testing.

But my revelation of the year came in the tales of the maverick Chinese writer Can Xue. Funny, bizarre, improbable yet oddly moving, her stories in The Last Lover (trans. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen; Yale, £9.99) often arise from the mutual fantasies of East and West. They can sometimes bring Kafka, Ishiguro or Calvino to mind. In the end, though, Can Xue commands a truly unique voice.