The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: Introducing the shortlist

Elias Rukla, the heroically grumpy teacher at the centre of Dag Solstad's novel Shyness and Dignity, broods about the lack of curiosity shown by his Oslo staffroom colleagues. They may moan endlessly about money but, otherwise, the bigger issues leave them cold and "they did not seem to be interested in carrying on a conversation any more". Sometimes, the UK fiction scene feels much the same: with its hype-happy publishers, fame-hungry writers, gossip-crazy media, discount-driven retailers and, at the end of the chain, passive readers expected to stump up and shut up in the face of the latest sensation. There are all sorts of reasons to relish the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction prize. Not least among them is the way each of these remarkable novels in translation invites us to have a many-sided conversation - with ourselves, with other readers, with the authors and (in some cases) history itself. Each, in its special way, is proof that formula-free storytelling thrives in many lands, outside the fiction factories.

Our shortlist embraces six original languages: Portuguese (José Eduardo Agualusa), Swedish (Per Olov Enquist), Greek (Vangelis Hatziyannidis), Spanish (Javier Marías), German (Eva Menasse) and Norwegian (Dag Solstad). The novels unfold across a world of plot and passion, from Agualusa's post-colonial Angola to Enquist's fin-de-siècle Paris. These books are talking to, and arguing with, their varied genres, from the fable-cum-mystery of Hatziyannidis to the family saga of Menasse. In English, each also bears witness to the creative dialogue that outstanding translators have undertaken with the original texts.

Inevitably, the judges (David Constantine, Jennie Erdal, Kate Griffin, Ali Smith and Boyd Tonkin) had to engage in a humdinger of a conversation to reach this shortlist at all. That took a strenuous debate at Arts Council England - again, along with Champagne Taittinger, source of the invaluable support that allows this award to carry on talking about the planet's fiction. Two other books came so close to places on the list that the judges wish to give them a warm, public endorsement: Seeing by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker), and Grace by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara Haveland (Picador). And, as we noted when the long-list was announced, the judging process this year stood in the shadow of Irène Némirovsky's rediscovered masterwork Suite Française (in Sandra Smith's translation): ineligible for this award, but still a touchstone of value and artistry for the entire panel.

The winner of the prize - which awards £5,000 to the author, and £5,000 to the translator - will be revealed on 1 May. Between now and then, we hope that this list will set tongues wagging and fingers tapping for a legion of curious readers. This conversation has only just begun.

THE SHORTLIST

The Book of Chameleons, by José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. Daniel Hahn (ARCADIA £11.99)

In Angola, an observant gecko watches as the albino Felix Ventura supplies new biographies to his guilty or vulnerable clients. We (and the gecko) hear their stories as the spy, the photographer or the minister try to re-fashion troubled lives amid the turmoil of post-colonial Africa. Humorous and quizzical, with a light touch on weighty themes, the narrative darts about with lizard-like colour and velocity.

The Story of Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist, trans. Tiina Nunnally (HARVILL SECKER £16.99)

In late 19th-century Paris, the disturbed teenager Blanche Wittman becomes the star patient of Dr Charcot as he shows off his new theories of hysteria. Released from hospital, Enquist's Blanche joins a second scientific revolution as she sacrifices health (and limbs) to help Marie Curie in her research into radioactivity. In this jigsaw-like novel, made up of glowing fragments of history and drama, scandal and prejudice engulf Curie as the pioneer turns pariah.

Four Walls, by Vangelis Hatziyannidis, trans. Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife (MARION BOYARS £7.99)

On a remote Greek island, solitary Rodakis takes in a fugitive woman and her daughter, and sets out to revive his father's honey-producing business. A sense of menace dogs his every step, and mystery surrounds everything from the identity of the guests to the prized Rodakis recipe. Soon he finds himself imprisoned in a sinister monastery, and long-buried secrets come to light in an eerie landscape which feels as if Ballard, or even Kafka, had taken a turn in the Aegean.

Your Face Tomorrow, 2: Dance and Dream, by Javier Marías trans. Margaret Jull Costa (CHATTO & WINDUS £17.99)

It stands alone as a self-sufficient work, but this novel is also the mid-point of a trilogy. In a brilliantly drawn London, Deza works for an obscure espionage outfit, a watcher unsure of his mission and his unfathomable boss. In the sinuous, gorgeous prose of a true virtuoso of European fiction, scenes of offbeat comedy gives way to memories of horror, and incidents from the Spanish Civil War summon up all the unquiet dead.

Vienna, by Eva Menasse, trans. Anthea Bell (WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £12.99)

From the cafés and workshops of 1930s Vienna to the pubs and football clubs of modern London (and even Luton), this family chronicle traces the accidents and adventures of a part-Jewish clan. They mostly survive - but sometimes don't - on the ragged fringes of great events. Over the generations, a dynasty of crooks, chancers and charmers come to cherishable life. This is a novel swathed in wit and warmth, but aware of the lies, evasions and cruelties that those old-world qualities can hide.

Shyness and Dignity, by Dag Solstad, trans. Sverre Lyngstad (HARVILL SECKER £12.99)

Driven to breaking-point by his pop-mad pupils' indifference to Ibsen and learning, teacher Rukla storms out of his Oslo school in a career-wrecking tantrum. Over one traumatic morning, he recalls his duty-bound life as an altruistic pillar of society. Meanwhile, his gifted friend Johan has forsaken Marx for the market to become a PR guru in New York. Rukla's private crisis captures in vivid, existential miniature the stalling of social-democratic Scandinavia.

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

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve