Magical mystery tour: The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize finds landscapes of wonder
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 12 April 2013
First-rate fiction in top-quality translation can do more than transport the reader into a different or a distant world. Just as valuably, it may open our eyes to scenes we thought we knew, casting them – and us – in an entirely fresh perspective.
True, some of the novels selected for the shortlist of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – praised below by the judges - do carry us far and wide: to Chris Barnard's drought-stricken South Africa; Dasa Drndic's Nazi-occupied northern Italy; Ismail Kadare's surreal, nightmarish Albania.
But Gerbrand Bakker makes of rural Wales an eerie site of mystery and menace; Enrique Vila-Matas conjures a unique personal, and literary, odyssey out of a junket to tourist Dublin; and Andrés Neuman waves his authorial magic wand over an obscure town in 19th- century Germany. After all, every novel of distinction creates a climate and landscape of its own.
So enjoy this fabulous banquet of the writer's, and the translator's art, served with pride by the judges – Frank Wynne, Elif Shafak, Gabriel Josipovici, Jean Boase-Beier and myself - and hosted again through the consistently generous support of Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. The winners of the £10,000 award - carved as always in two strictly equal portions between the author and translator – will be announced on 20 May.
The shortlist: Exploring a story-shaped world
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer); Harvill Secker
This is an apparently simple tale of a woman who goes to live in an isolated cottage in Wales. But there is an unsettling sense of impending doom. Why is she here? What will happen to her? The story is deeply involving, the dialogue utterly convincing, and the translation near-perfect. Unpretentious, restrained and profound, 'The Detour' is everything a novel should be. Jean Boase-Beier
Bundu by Chris Barnard (Afrikaans; Michiel Heyns); Alma Books
Compact, colourful, freighted with great issues but written with pace and grace, 'Bundu' introduces UK readers to a giant of South African fiction. Chris Barnard sketches a limbo-land between South Africa and Mozambique, where a researcher into baboon behaviour finds a refugee crisis on his drought-stricken doorstep. Swift-moving but enigmatic, the action may feel closer to the frontier fables of JM Coetzee than the bush yarns of Wilbur Smith. But this ideas-rich adventure, superbly served by Michiel Heyns, excites as much as it challenges the reader. Boyd Tonkin
Trieste by Daša Drndic (Croatian; Ellen Elias-Bursac); MacLehose Press
From the red basket at her feet, Haya Tedeschi draws out a harrowing tale in aching memories, tattered photos, maps and heartrending litanies. At the heart of this audacious tale, the poignant search of a mother for the son abducted as part of the Nazis' Lebensborn programme shimmers liked a flawed jewel. The luminous translation brings both pathos and veracity to the blizzard of facts and voices in Drndic's documentary novel. 'Trieste' captures the true horror and confusion of war. Frank Wynne
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare (Albanian; John Hodgson); Canongate
With biting wit and a bleak pathos, this tale of two doctors cursed with the same name becomes a palimpsest of the history of Albania. The lightness and wry humour of Kadare's tale of tyranny makes the fate of the characters all the more devastating. John Hodgson's limpid translation captures Kadare's deft interweaving of history and myth. FW
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman (Spanish; Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia); Pushkin Press
Hans, a young traveller and translator, arrives at Wandernburg - a small town in post-Napoleonic Germany that feels equally mundane and magical. Very few novels can build up an atmosphere as deftly and convincingly as 'Traveller of the Century'. This is a wonderful novel of ideas. It is a story of love, loneliness and journeys, spiritual and intellectual, that will envelop you like a morning fog and, when you have finished reading, you might see the world differently. Elif Shafak
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (Spanish; Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean); Harvill Secker
A comic book that is both serious and profound. Combining the celebration of the ordinary in Schwitters or Perec with the hint of mad tongue-in-cheek apocalypse of Duchamp and Bernhard, 'Dublinesque' is imbued with its own aura: of a world becalmed after the storms that beset culture in the 20th century. Is that calm a sign of peace at last, or of the absence of any life-giving wind? Gabriel Josipovici
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