Spanning the literary globe
Boyd Tonkin introduces the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Friday 04 March 2005
Their authors include a young Chinese film-maker (Xiaolu Guo) and a Brazilian pop star-turned-writer (Chico Buarque). Their subjects stretch from the almost unimaginable horror of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 (
Windows on the World) to the all-too-familiar heartbreaks of teenage life, but in the fresh setting of market-crazy Russia (
Give Me: songs for lovers). Two of these six works of fiction come from Turkey, and one each from France (but that's largely about the US), Brazil (but
that's largely about Hungary), Russia and China. Whatever their other merits and attractions, the shortlist for this year's
Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will guarantee its readers a window on the world.
Their authors include a young Chinese film-maker (Xiaolu Guo) and a Brazilian pop star-turned-writer (Chico Buarque). Their subjects stretch from the almost unimaginable horror of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 ( Windows on the World) to the all-too-familiar heartbreaks of teenage life, but in the fresh setting of market-crazy Russia ( Give Me: songs for lovers). Two of these six works of fiction come from Turkey, and one each from France (but that's largely about the US), Brazil (but that's largely about Hungary), Russia and China. Whatever their other merits and attractions, the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will guarantee its readers a window on the world.
The £10,000 prize (divided between author and translator, and splendidly supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger) will be awarded in mid-April. I and my fellow-judges (the writers Julian Evans and Michèle Roberts, the editor and translator Margaret Obank, and Kate Griffin of Arts Council England) will somehow have to agree on a winner from this supremely vigorous and versatile list.
We decided that four novels that narrowly missed the final selection from our long-list of 16 still deserve a special mention, and a further recommendation. They are Mia Couto's The Last Flight of the Flamingo (translated by David Brookshaw; Serpent's Tail); Victor Erofeyev's Life with an Idiot (trans. Andrew Reynolds; Penguin); Turki al-Hamad's Shumaisi (trans. David Starkey; Saqi); and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (translated by Lucia Graves; Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Our shortlist may not please lovers of cool, ironic, so-what fiction, nor of retro historical romps decked out in in fancy dress. In their very different fashions, all six books wrestle passionately with the forces that are reshaping our planet, as they count the human cost of upheaval. As Michèle Roberts commented, all are in some way "about being citizens of the world". Read them, and you too can span the modern literary globe.
Windows on the World by Frédéric Beigbeder, trans Frank Wynne (FOURTH ESTATE £9.99)
In the restaurant of the World Trade Centre, a property dealer and his children endure the 100 minutes before the North Tower's collapse on 11 September 2001. In Paris, a cynical French novelist struggles to write this most harrowing of stories. This could have been a feast of bad taste, but Beigbeder brings it off thanks to his electrifying intelligence and vaulting leaps of sympathy with all the victims - in the tower, the planes, and the unjust world beyond New York. The judges found it "almost unbearably moving".
Budapest by Chico Buarque, trans Alison Entrekin (BLOOMSBURY £13.99)
A writer from Rio de Janeiro gets stranded beside the Danube on his way back to Brazil. Cue a witty, ingenious and oddly moving exploration of what it means to be lost in translation, as José's discovery of Hungary and of Hungarian acquires both an erotic and a historical dimension. Beguiled by the book's "love affair with language", the judges relished its playful, sophisticated take on the wary relationships between the New World and Old Europe, brought to us from the Portuguese by an "excellent" translation.
Give Me (songs for lovers) by Irina Denezhkina, trans Andrew Bromfield (CHATTO & WINDUS £10.99)
Still in her mid-twenties, Irina Denezhkina caused a sensation in Russia with these ten brutal yet lyrical stories of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in the messy consumerist wasteland of post-Soviet society. Raw but compassionate, these glimpses of love - and hate, and numbness - in a cold climate pack a punch like a shot of bootleg vodka. The judges saluted a "brilliant outburst" of angry talent, equally at home with agony and ecstasy, from a youthful "Chekhov for the MTV generation".
Village of Stone by Xiaolu Guo, trans Cindy Carter (CHATTO & WINDUS £12.99)
Old and new China meet, fight and seek reconciliation in this novel of a young, lost woman immersed in the fast-food and frisbees of urban Beijing. Her troubled childhood in a poor seaside village returns when a fishy package arrives... Xiaolu Guo captures the tensions of city and country, family and career, that partner China's drive to the future. Yet this is no social tract but a moving story of trauma, flight and healing, admired by the judges for the way that its "folkloric childhood segues into modernity via myth and horror".
Snow by Orhan Pamuk, trans Maureen Freely (FABER & FABER £12.99)
An exiled Turkish poet returns from Germany to a blizzard-bound border town where the plotting of Islamist radicals has upset the order of a tight provincial society. His trip involved baffling deaths: our narrator must follow the poet's path to explain. Pamuk weaves the many tales bred by a Turkey caught between religious and secular worlds into a tapestry of comedy, tragedy and history. The judges loved the blending of "rich" themes with "modest" storytelling, and the superb translation.
The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak, trans Müge Göçek (MARION BOYARS £9.99)
In modern Istanbul, a bug-ridden, garbage-laden block of flats houses a cast of eccentric characters whose lives entwine into stories that veer between farce and mystery, romance and satire. Elif Shafak turns her down-at-heel "Bonbon Palace" into a fictional stage where all of Turkey's current conflicts can be uproariously played out. The judges enjoyed their high-spirited visit to this mouldering "microcosm", with its dodgy hygiene, colourful residents, shocking secrets and all the bustling energy of a "carnival" of fiction.
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