The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list spans a planet of stories
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 09 March 2012
The 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize remains not just Britain's premier honour for modern writing in translation: with its £10,000 pot equally – and uniquely - divided between author and translator. It has, over the dozen years since its re-foundation with generous support from Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger, become the contest of first resort for many readers here and abroad who wish to take the temperature of global fiction.
This sounds paradoxical at first. One of the aims of the award has been to encourage translation-averse UK publishers to broaden their horizons, and welcome more books over our tightly-patrolled linguistic borders. Yet the relative scarcity of translations into the "Anglosphere", however frustrating, lends extra weight to those that do make the crossing. For a novelist, prominence in an English-language edition can unlock translations into other languages. It may throw a bridge between diverse audiences and markets. This prize offers to British readers a superb tasting menu of fictional flavours, and a feast of the translator's art. It also helps to sharpen appetites, and set agendas, across the world.
Always a rainbow of voices, places and styles, the long-list for the prize this year paints with a more colourful palette than ever. The authors include a lyricist for Björk (Sjón, with his uproarious and visionary confession of a sorceror-scientist in 17th-century Iceland), a one-time propaganda writer for the Chinese army (Yan Lianke, whose shocking but tender countryside tragedy lifts the lid on China's blood-farming scandal), a Brussels-based EU linguist (Diego Marani, whose stranded soldier in wartime Trieste inspires an ingenious, tantalising fable about language, identity and community), and a Holocaust survivor who spent his childhood hiding from the Nazis - Aharon Appelfeld, whose own early ordeals underpin his poignant story of a lost, scared boy and the scandalous woman who shelters him.
The titles chosen take in wide-canvas bestsellers by the international superstars of fiction: Haruki Murakami spins his cult-busting Tokyo fantasia through a hallucinatory alternative world; Umberto Eco plumbs the depths of fin-de-siècle anti-Semitism via an exuberant melodrama of facts and fakes. Briefer books selected include Judith Hermann's achingly gorgeous linked stories of grief and memory in Berlin and Italy; Amos Oz's braid of Israeli lives into a beguiling tapestry of friendship, solitude and suspicion; and Matthias Politycki's cunning and gripping novella, which gives a smug academic the shock of his life.
Languages represented range from Korean (Kyung-sook Shin, whose tale of an aged parent lost in the frenzy of Seoul captures all the disorientation of modernity) and Norwegian (Dag Solstad, sending another fretful don into a darkly comic crisis of belief on Christmas Eve) to Hungarian (Peter Nadas, who unfolds his nation's tormented modern history across a vast panorama of curious characters and unsettling incidents). Further forays into the past take readers into Heart of Darkness-era Congo, with Bernardo Atxaga's mordant satire aimed at vain European colonisers; to fashionable Paris in the 1980s and 1990s, as Aids – both as condition and idea – scythes through a quartet of intellectual friends in Tristan Garcia's corrosive tale of love in fluid times; and to the wartime Lodz ghetto in Poland, in Steve Sem-Sandberg's suspenseful moral epic of collaboration, resistance and the search for hope in hell.
This year's prize chefs had as strenuous a spell as ever in the adjudicators' kitchen. Joining me on the judging panel are Hephzibah Anderson, writer and critic, Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Professor Jon Cook, director of creative and performing arts at the University of East Anglia, and Xiaolu Guo, writer and film-maker shortlisted for this prize for her novel Village of Stone. Our agreeably heated discussions reduced a 100-strong entry to 15 titles. As well as the sheer breadth on show in terms of language, geography and genre, this long-list covers the waterfront of UK publishing vessels - from the literary imprints of conglomerates to a strong showing for the smaller independents. We recommend them all: the bulky and the slender; the tragic and the satiric; the epic and the domestic; the stories from here and now, and those from far away and long ago. Somehow, we will have to render this mouth-watering banquet down into a final choice of six dishes. The shortlist will be announced at the London Book Fair on Monday 16 April.
All the long-listed books are available with a discount from the 'Independent' bookshop, 08430 600 030
A wide world of fiction: the long-list
Aharon Appelfeld Blooms of Darkness (translated by Jeffrey M Green from the Hebrew; Alma Books)
Bernardo Atxaga Seven Houses in France (Margaret Jull Costa; Spanish; Harvill Secker)
Umberto Eco The Prague Cemetery (Richard Dixon; Italian; Harvill Secker)
Tristan Garcia Hate: a romance (Marion Duvert & Lorin Stein; French; Faber & Faber)
Judith Hermann Alice (Margot Bettauer Dembo; German; The Clerkenwell Press)
Diego Marani New Finnish Grammar (Judith Landry; Italian; Dedalus)
Haruki Murakami 1Q84, Books 1 and 2 (Jay Rubin; Japanese; Harvill Secker)
Peter Nadas Parallel Stories (Imre Goldstein; Hungarian; Jonathan Cape)
Amos Oz Scenes from Village Life (Nicholas de Lange; Hebrew; Chatto & Windus)
Matthias Politycki Next World Novella (Anthea Bell; German; Peirene Press)
Steve Sem-Sandberg The Emperor of Lies (Sarah Death; Swedish; Faber & Faber)
Kyung-sook Shin Please Look After Mother (Chi-Young Kim; Korean; Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Sjón From the Mouth of the Whale (Victoria Cribb; Icelandic; Telegram Books)
Dag Solstad Professor Andersen's Night (Agnes Scott Langeland; Norwegian; Harvill Secker)
Yan Lianke Dream of Ding Village (Cindy Carter; Chinese; Constable & Robinson)
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