Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: Boyd Tonkin presents this year's globe-spanning, mind-expanding long-list
Friday 25 January 2008
The annual list of the bestselling paperbacks in Britain made, as ever, a more enlightening read than many of the books on it. Take away those titles sold at a large discount and number 12 in the top hundred for 2007 was Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, with sales of 320,343 copies (after its triumph in hardback, of course). So, in Sandra Smith's perfectly pitched translation, Némirovsky's rediscovered epic of the fall of France and the ordeal of German occupation easily outsold books by mass-market titans such as Jilly Cooper, Stephen King, Danielle Steele and even Katie "Jordan" Price, all published at a comparable stage of the year. True, Suite Française is a very special novel, with an uncommonly moving story behind as well as within its pages. Yet disheartened publishers, booksellers and translators should ponder those figures the next time some corporate blockhead argues that Britain counts as a uniquely hostile landscape for fiction from beyond the English-speaking world. In any language, that is nonsense.
All the same, an absence of knowledge, of courage and of will does conspire to delay, or sometimes prevent, the arrival on these shores of countless great books from outside the Anglosphere. This long-term market failure to deliver the world's best fiction in good time (or at all) to our shelves is what justifies the expenditure of comparatively tiny amounts of public money to speed the passage of such books. Without its help, the British literary scene might really start to look like what many overseas authors and critics that I meet already assume it is: the global village idiot, loud-mouthed and lame-brained, foisting its clod-hopping middlebrow fare (very successfully, it must be said) on the rest of the planet while remaining stone deaf to whatever other tongues might have to say to us.
Since 2000, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has enjoyed the stalwart support of Arts Council England in order to play a part in resisting this global-village idiocy. I'm thrilled that this partnership can continue. Sadly, this pleasure is tempered by the struggle now waged by some of the Council's literary clients to keep the threatened funding that allows them to produce works in translation. Among the potential losers is Arcadia: a house that not only won this prize last year (with José Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons), but publishes two titles on the long-list below. No prize, no publisher, no festival – no artistic venture – has a God-given right to suck on the teat of the state (ie the taxpayer). ACE is quite correct to demand that our money be spent efficiently and exclusively on distinctive, ambitious projects and – crucially - on helping them to reach as wide an audience as possible. Still, given its own criteria, ACE should think again about some of those looming cuts.
Meanwhile, this long-list – selected from almost 100 submissions of translated fiction by living authors published in the UK during 2007 – teems with wonders and delights. It stretches from Alaa Al-Aswany's Cairo apartment block and the tangled lives of its tenants to Laura Restrepo's Colombian family in the coke-fuelled heyday of Pablo Escobar; from the history-haunted South African farmstead of Marlene van Niekerk (writing in Afrikaans) to the occupied Palestinian town of Sayed Kashua (writing in Hebrew); from the nuclear scientists and stormtroopers of 1930s Berlin, in Paul Verhaeghen's Omega Minor, to the hilarious but sinister collapse of Communism into capitalism in the Slovakia of Peter Pist'anek's Rivers of Babylon.
And, no more than British authors would do these novelists stick to their own territory. Daniel Kehlmann, from Vienna, follows the explorer Humboldt up the Orinoco; Alan Pauls makes a shocking journey from bohemian Buenos Aires to the London art scene of the Eighties; Yasmina Traboulsi, from Paris, visits the ancient squares and new favelas of Brazil.
Somehow, the prize judges (Kate Griffin of Arts Council England, novelist and University of Kent professor Abdulrazak Gurnah, Le Monde's literary editor Florence Noiville, and myself) will have to compress this global treasure-trove of 17 books into a shortlist of six by the end of next month. The prize – worth £10,000, and divided between author and translator – will be given in early May. In the meantime, save yourself from insular village-idiocy and sample some at least of these horizon-stretching tales from other worlds, and other minds.
Alaa Al-Aswany, The Yacoubian Building (translated by Humphrey Davies from the Arabic, and published by Fourth Estate)
Bi Feiyu, The Moon Opera (Howard Goldblatt; Chinese; Telegram)
Lars Saabye Christensen, The Model (Don Bartlett; Norwegian; Arcadia)
Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book of Words (Susan Bernofsky; German; Portobello)
Pawel Huelle, Castorp (Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Polish; Serpent's Tail)
Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon's Daughter (David Bellos; French; Canongate)
Sayed Kashua, Let It Be Morning (Miriam Shlesinger; Hebrew; Atlantic)
Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World (Carol Brown Janeway; German; Quercus)
Erwin Mortier, Shutterspeed (Ina Rilke; Dutch; Harvill Secker)
Marlene van Niekerk, The Way of the Women (Michiel Heyns; Afrikaans; Little, Brown)
Bengt Ohlsson, Gregorius (Silvester Mazzarella; Swedish; Portobello)
Alan Pauls, The Past (Nick Caistor; Spanish; Harvill Secker)
Peter Pist'anek, Rivers of Babylon (Peter Petro; Slovak; Garnett Press)
Laura Restrepo, Delirium (Natasha Wimmer; Spanish; Harvill Secker)
Yasmina Traboulsi, Bahia Blues (Polly McLean; French; Arcadia)
Paul Verhaeghen, Omega Minor (the author; Dutch; Dalkey Archive Press)
Enrique Vila-Matas, Montano (Jonathan Dunne; Spanish; Harvill Secker)
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