'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist: A whole world in their words

 

It called for soul-searching and sacrifice but, after much impassioned debate, the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize took the shape that you see here. If anything, the panel of judges – Xiaolu Guo, Jon Cook, Nick Barley, Hephzibah Anderson and myself – had to contend with an embarrassment of riches. Whatever our perennial regrets about the limited quantity of fiction brought into English from other languages, the quality of translations felt as bold and bright as ever. In Britain, we owe so much of our view of global fiction to independent publishers of various shapes and sizes. Responsible for around two-thirds of all submissions for the Independent prize, they contribute five out of the six titles on this list – although I ought to stress that neither commercial nor geographical provenance ever sways the decision.

That said, this selection loops in a vast arc from the wind-blown cliffs of 17th-century Iceland (Sjón) to the cafés of fin-de-siècle Paris (Umberto Eco) and the dusty villages of Henan (Yan Lianke). The books embrace as wide a span of forms as of locations – from the enlaced story-cycle of Judith Hermann's bohemian Berlin to the eerie, enigmatic fable Diego Marani spins in wartime Trieste and the starkly realistic yet fairy-tale landscape where Aharon Appelfeld's young hero survives. It was a privilege to read, and to discuss, all these books.

On 14 May, our twin winners – the author and the translator, who share the £10,000 award equally – will be announced. We have, as ever, Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger to thank for the vital support that allows us to build this extraordinary annual bridge between the world's writers and British readers. I hope that you'll again be tempted to cross it with us.

All books are available with a discount from the Independent bookshop: 08430 600 030

Six of the best: the judges' verdicts

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

Hephzibah Anderson: Aharon Appelfeld's 'Blooms of Darkness' tells the story of Hugo, an 11-year-old Jewish boy whose mother spirits him from a ghetto in Ukraine as the Nazis arrive to liquidate it. She leaves him with a prostitute named Mariana who hides him in her cupboard, and over the next 18 months, this becomes his world. Jeffrey M Green's incantatory translation from the Hebrew does ample justice to a novel that meditates on the imagination, memory and language itself. As the relationship between Hugo and Mariana evolves, this deceptively simple narrative does something extraordinary, carrying the reader to a liminal territory in which deep sensuality exists alongside unfathomable brutality. Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books)

Alice by Judith Hermann

Boyd Tonkin: These five linked stories all unfold in the shadow of death. Yet, with their pin-sharp precision and lyrical tenderness, they make the reader feel thrillingly alive. In Germany, Alice awaits the passing of a former partner and forms a fragile bond with his current wife. On holiday in the Italian lakes, surrounded by sensual delight, she finds that mortal shocks intrude. Back in Berlin, a meeting with her gay uncle's lover leads to a buried story of forbidden grief. Exquisitely written, gracefully translated,Judith Hermann's everyday elegies might have proved depressing in clumsier hands. They are just the opposite. All the more precious for their transience, these fragments of love and memory brim with the small joys of life. Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo (The Clerkenwell Press)

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón

Nick Barley: This memorable, magical book tells the story of an Icelandic sage banished to exile on Gullbjörn's Island in 1635. Caught in the grip of superstition, Iceland's establishment has decided that the self-taught healer, Jonas the Learned, is a practitioner of the black arts and sent him away to a "bird-fouled rock". Sitting there with nothing more than a sandpiper for company, Jonas is then drawn into an epic adventure, by turns surprising and surreal. Sjón's remarkable tale imagines a delirious 17th-century Iceland swithering between mysticism and a new scientific rationalism, and it is rendered brilliantly into English in Victoria Cribb's exuberant translation. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Telegram Books)

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Jon Cook: This is a great mystery novel about paranoia, prejudice and forgery. Set mainly in late 19th-century Paris, its central figure and its only entirely fictional creation is Simone Simonini. His diary entries form the narrative spine. We gain access to a world of city streets, strange anecdotes, gourmet menus, and conspiratorial minds. What emerges out of the novel's richly informed historical imagination is a salutary insight: anti-Semitism was part of the common currency of 19th-century culture. Out of it came one of the most sinister and influential modern fictions, the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. With terse wit and engaging erudition, Eco's best novel since 'The Name of the Rose' shows that the Holocaust was a catastrophe a long time in the making. Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon (Harvill Secker)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Jon Cook: 'New Finnish Grammar' takes the form of a sequence of journal entries, with occasional interruptions from an editor. The journal is written by a Finnish sailor, Sampo Karjalainen. The editorial comments come from a doctor, Petri Friari, who treated Sampo after his beaten body was found on the streets of Trieste. Sampo can remember nothing and has lost the powers of speech. Friari brings him back to life and to the Finnish language he believes Sampo has lost. This is the start of a journey back to what he believes to be his home, war-torn Helsinki. This subtle and moving novel shows how much of what we take to be ourselves depends upon the language we speak and the identity it gives us - and how suddenly that self can be taken away. Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Xiaolu Guo: This is a brave, dark and poetic account of modern Chinese malaise. Through his description of the many lives touched by an Aids epidemic sweeping a village, Yan Lianke proves himself not only as a writer of political vision, but also one with a unique narrative voice. His tale is told from the point of view of a dead child. Through the child, we witnesses the deaths of HIV-infected villagers, as well as the actions the villagers take to easy the pain of the dying and bring hope to those who remain alive. Yan Lianke's prose, based on a true story, combines an oral storytelling tradition with daring experiment - something rare in contemporary Chinese literature. I urge anyone interested in modern China to read this book. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter (Corsair)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future