Champions of the word: Treasures from Berlin to Bengal feature on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist
Friday 16 April 2010
For ten years the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been running in its present form. Over that time, and with loyal and generous support from Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger, it has grown into the most highly esteemed, and eagerly awaited, prize for fiction in translation in Britain – and maybe far beyond.
It would be nice to report (from somewhere in Utopia) that within that short decade UK publishers had galloped to embrace the best in international fiction, and set aside their traditional reluctance to look overseas at any work outside their native tongue. Needless to say, that has not happened - and will not happen any time soon. All the same, the reach and resonance of fiction from beyond the Anglosphere have, beyond any doubt, increased.
At every stage of the chain from editor to reader (by far the most important), British eyes and minds have opened - at least a little - to a wider imaginative world. Translators, the equal beneficiaries of this award, have edged out of the shadows. Insularity, or a purely North Atlantic perspective, no longer sounds cool. Nordic merchants of death have conquered these islands once more. As I write, Stieg Larsson (only ever published posthumously here, and so not eligible for this prize) tops the British charts again in paperback. But many other kinds of literary landmark – the Zafóns, the Bolaños, the Littells, the Némirovskys – can now hope to make as big a noise here as anywhere on earth.
As always, the Independent prize aims to do much more than echo such global trends. This time the judges (Tibor Fischer, Kate Griffin, Daniel Hahn, Kirsty Lang and myself) had a lighter workload than in some recent record-busting years: a recession-induced blip, let's hope (or fear). If anything, however, the sheer scope and diversity of this year's field matches or surpasses any previous contest. Was it tough to eject some of the other outstanding titles on the long-list in order to select these final six? You bet.
But we bit the bullet and we grasped the nettle (to deploy just the kind of cliché that straightaway extinguishes the hopes of any translation entered for this prize). In terms of geography, material, emotion, narrative and style, this shortlist truly spans a planet. Of the two books translated from German (and both by Anthea Bell), Julia Franck takes us, intimately, to war-damaged Berlin and Saxony; Rafik Schami, epically, to Damascus, over a century. Of the French pair, Alain Mabanckou finds comedy and heartbreak in a Congolese bar; Philippe Claudel weaves a modern myth from the aftermath of atrocity. From Bengali, Sankar celebrates life and love in and around a grand hotel; and, from Italian, Pietro Grossi's sporting stories depict young men on edge, and on the brink. Each excites and excels in its utterly distinctive way. If you can, read the lot.
In a few weeks' time, the judges meet again for an even tougher bout. The result of the £10,000 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which is divided equally between author and translator, will be revealed on 13 May. In the meantime, enjoy this eclectic quiverful of stars: winners all.
By Philippe Claudel trans. John Cullen
In the aftermath of a genocidal war, a survivor of the camps has returned to the village backwater where he grew up as a suspect immigrant. Soon he finds that – an outsider – he must compile a report to whitewash neighbours who have murdered an outlandish visitor, a truth-telling alien. Written with a painterly beauty, unfolding in the vivid landscape of a nightmarish folk-tale, the novel turns history into a fable that mixes Kafka and the Grimms: a Gothic vision of fear redeemed by love in a world where "the wolves outnumber the lambs". Published by MacLehose Press
The Blind Side of the Heart
By Julia Franck trans. Anthea Bell
Framed by the story of a child abandoned in the chaos of postwar Germany, this novel shows epoch-making events through the eyes and emotions of the ordinary people – above all the women – who always bear their brunt. After the tramuas of the 1914-1918 war, half-Jewish Helene escapes to Weimar Berlin, an emancipated nurse breathing the air of freedom. As the darkness of the Hitler era closes in, marriage to a pro-Nazi engineer link dictatorship at home and in the state, in a novel finely attuned to every exercise of power- and every act of resistance. Published by Harvill Secker
By Pietro Grossi trans. Howard Curtis
Three long stories, or brief novellas, show young men sparring with others and (most of all) themselves on the brink of adult life. In "Boxing", a rich kid and a poor one prepare for a defining bout; "Horses" portrays two brothers riding away from youth, and the shadow of their father; in "The Monkey", a friend's shocking withdrawal from human contact forces a young man to balance the calls of freedom and of resonsibility. Clean and spare prose strips all sentiment from these intensely rendered dramas. The closed worlds of youth open up, as these kids' bravado fades in the face of the adult future's glimpsed complexities. Published by Pushkin Press
By Alain Mabanckou trans. Helen Stevenson
The eponymous narrator, a washed-up schoolteacher steeped in the literary classics, recounts the smashed dreams of a people from his seat in a low dive in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. This bar-room yarn-spinner tells his fellow-tipplers' tales in a voice that swings between broad farce and aching tragedy. His farewell performance from a perch in "Credit GoneWest" abounds in scorching wit and flights of eloquence. The French canon of literature haunts his sob stories, evidence of scotched African ambitions in a forlorn spot that can make drink a station on the way to despair. Yet vitriolic comedy and pugnacious irreverence keep some hope alive. Published by Serpent's Tail
By Sankar trans. Arunava Sinha
Sankar – pen-name of Mani Sankar Mukherji – first published this novel in Bengali in 1962. At its centre, a venerable relic of the past in post-independence India, lies a Calcutta grand hotel, the Shahjahan. Tale by tale, charcater by character, Chowringhee builds up into a panoramic picture of a workplace, a city and an era, rich in comedy and pathos. Via the adventures of an observant clerk-receptionist, we meet the hotel's swirling human tide. Tender-hearted Anglo-Indian tarts; neurotic "hostesses", Raj veterans; showgirls and entrepreneurs, bartenders, bandleaders, posh memsahibs: all Calcutta comes. The guests create a microcosm of a society in flux. Published by Atlantic
The Dark Side of Love
By Rafik Schami trans. Anthea Bell
A blood feud between two Christian Syrian families blights many lives over generations. This grand novel captures the city of Damascus, and the ancient cultures it hosts, in a century of change. A gruesome death sends a detective on the trail of a tit-for-tat vendetta between clans, as a varied cast of characters and a rich repertoire of stories and legends enrich the tapestry. In an epic brimming with energy and exuberance that counterbalances its sense of fate, we grasp the mosaic of Damascus itself, "a lost luggage office of cultures". Published by Arabia Books
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