Menu for a global feast of fiction

Boyd Tonkin introduces the six novels selected for the shortlist of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We can, at least, be sure of one unique distinction in this year's shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

We can, at least, be sure of one unique distinction in this year's shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Never before has the name of a former Watford FC soccer star graced the last round of a British literary award. The mysterious quartet of Italian cultural pranksters who called themselves "Luther Blissett" also managed to fuse four voices into one for their collaborative blockbuster, Q. It joins five other equally compelling novels in the final stages of the prize, worth £10,000 and evenly split between author and translator. Once more, we salute the generous support of Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger.

Before we met to shrink our 16-strong long-list into a shortlist of six, I and my three fellow-judges - the translator Siân Williams, the novelist and historian Marina Warner and the poet George Szirtes - had already discarded the latest books by world-class heavyweights such as Günter Grass and Mario Vargas Llosa. British publishers may not issue nearly enough new fiction in translation; and this prize aims to prod them into doing more. But the scope and heft of what does reach British shelves remains formidable.

A selection that already represented la crême de la crême had to yield yet another layer of refinement. The result, I believe, consists of half-a-dozen extraordinary books that will open the eyes and quicken the pulse of any reader. All the same, several long-list titles missed the cut by a narrow margin.

These close contenders rate an honourable mention. They include Turki Al-Hamad's courageous novel of adolescent rebellion in Saudi Arabia, Adama (Saqi Books); Javier Marias' haunting literary mystery, Dark Back of Time (Chatto & Windus); Lars Saabye Christensen's cornucopian Norwegian epic The Half Brother (Arcadia and Vintage); and Shan Sa's delicate love-story set during the Japanese invasion of China, The Girl Who Played Go (Chatto & Windus).

As for the books that make up our shortlist, they compose a banquet to satisfy the most exacting literary gourmet. It's a feast at which, in linguistic terms, Spanish flavours take pride of place. Two vastly different novels from Catalonia (both written in Castilian) explore the long reverberations of the Spanish Civil War: Javier Cercas' picaresque Soldiers of Salamis, and Juan Marsé's lyrical Lizard Tails. From Argentina, Ricardo Piglia screws true-crime exploits up to a heroic pitch in Money to Burn. The Q quartet turn their modern Italian eyes on the bloody ferment of the 16th-century German Reformation, as the Moroccan novelist Mahi Binebine - who writes in French - humanises the continent's current crisis of asylum and migration in Welcome to Paradise. Finally, Elke Schmitter strips bare the secrets of small-town Germany in Mrs Sartoris.

Which of these remarkable novels - and remarkable translations - will prevail? On 19 April, the secrets of the judging panel will emerge. In the meantime, I recommend the whole of this rich and rewarding list.

Welcome to Paradise by Mahi Binebine trans Lulu Norman (GRANTA £6.99 (181pp))

African migrants in Tangier meet the people-trafficker who offers them a risky passage to Europe. Binebine tells their varied tales with an empathy and clarity that reveals the humanity behind headlines.

Q by Luther Blissett trans Shaun Whiteside (HEINEMANN £14.99 (635pp))

In 1530s Germany, a revolt of heretics ends in slaughter. The rebels re-group in the Low Countries; a Papal spy shadows every move. This stunning epic of action, mystery and ideas out-Ecos Umberto himself.

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas trans Anne McLean (BLOOMSBURY £14.99 (224pp))

A Catalan journalist stumbles over an odd story from Spain's civil war: of a Francoist dandy who cheated death, and the genuine hero who saved him. A subtle, funny, moving trip into wartime myths and memories.

Lizard Tails by Juan Marsé trans Nick Caistor (HARVILL £10.99 (231pp))

In late-1940s Barcelona, a family struggles to survive an epoch of repression and dread. This lovingly-crafted novel lets an ordinary childhood unfold with beauty and intensity amid the ruins of love and hope.

Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia trans Amanda Hopkinson (GRANTA £12 (209pp))

Inspired by a real bank-raid in Argentina, Piglia turns a hard-boiled heist yarn into a thrilling exploration of crime, law and violence. Documentary fuses with epic as the spirits of Borges and Tarantino unite.

Mrs Sartoris by Elke Schmitter trans Carol Brown Janeway (FABER £10.99 (143pp))

A becalmed wife in provincial Germany takes a suave, married lover. Their idyll ends, her daughter drifts into peril - and a shocking climax looms in this vividly atmospheric novel.

Comments