The long-list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Let great writing banish January blues, says Boyd Tonkin

To brighten up the dull, dark days of January, the media peddle relentlessly upbeat tales of sun-scorched vacations in far-flung locations. Compared to these identikit beach paradises, a selection of the world's most gripping and powerful fictions sounds like a slightly tougher sell. Don't worry: the books on the long-list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize offer a different but far more exciting kind of midwinter break.

These 16 titles abound with extraordinary stories from a dozen countries. In a month's time, I and my fellow-judges (the writers Paul Bailey, Margaret Busby and Maureen Freely, and Kate Griffin of Arts Council England) will face the heavy task of compacting this treasure into a shortlist of six. The £10,000 prize - divided between the winning author and translator, and generously supported again by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger - will be awarded in April.

Four books failed by a slim whisker to feature on this long-list, but still carry the judges' warm endorsement. They are Etgar Keret's off-the-wall snapshots of Israeli youth, The Nimrod Flip-Out (Chatto & Windus); Elias Khoury's sweeping saga of the Palestinians' plight, Gate of the Sun (Harvill Secker); Samuel Shimon's uproarious tales of exile and excess, An Iraqi in Paris (Banipal); and Taichi Yamada's subtle Tokyo ghost story, Strangers (Faber). We salute them all.

The titles still in contention include books by a Nobel Prize winner, the Hungarian Imre Kertész, and a Goncourt and Impac winner, the French-Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun. Both astonishing novels lead the reader into the lowest circle of prison-camp hell, than out through a narrow gate of hope. In contrast, Japan's Haruki Murakami mixes his addictive cocktail of comedy, mystery and myth; Israel's David Grossman seduces with his twin novellas of love and loss; and Germany's Karen Duve spins outrageous humour from adolescent angst.

Also from Germany, Judith Hermann's exquisite stories pinpoint those moments when the soul shifts gear; Ellen Mattson from Sweden, and Per Petterson from Norway, fashion novels from such life-changing events with equal skill and grace. Recent Polish history wears an epic and tragic mask with Stefan Chwin; with Pawel Huelle, laughter mingles with tears.

Magda Szabó creates a great Hungarian survivor of war and tyranny; and Croatian Dubravka Ugresic traces the haunted path of refugees from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. More quirkily, we return to contemporary China from France with Dai Sijie's quizzical shrink; we explore Antarctica in the surreal company of Marie Darrieussecq's polar scientists; and scoot around Paris with Tonino Benacquista's Hitchcock-like thriller of changed identities.

And Philippe Claudel, behind French lines in 1917, delves into the meaning of a single crime amid a total war. Claudel, by the way, paints as chillingly bleak a winter landscape as you'll ever meet in print. Yet it somehow cheers you up, as first-rate fiction - whatever its source, and whatever its subject - always manages to do.

Tonino Benacquista, Someone Else (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; Bitter Lemon)

Tahar Ben Jelloun, This Blinding Absence of Light (French; Linda Coverdale; Penguin)

Stefan Chwin, Death in Danzig (Polish; Philip Boehm; Secker & Warburg)

Philippe Claudel, Grey Souls (French; Adriana Hunter; Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Marie Darrieussecq, White (French; Ian Monk; Faber)

Karen Duve, This is Not a Love Song (German; Anthea Bell; Bloomsbury)

David Grossman, Lovers and Strangers (Hebrew; Jessica Cohen; Bloomsbury)

Judith Hermann, Nothing but Ghosts (German; Margot Bettauer Dembo; Fourth Estate)

Pawel Huelle, Mercedes-Benz (Polish; Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Serpent's Tail)

Imre Kértesz, Fatelessness (Hungarian; Tim Wilkinson; Harvill Secker)

Ellen Mattson, Snow (Swedish; Sarah Death; Jonathan Cape)

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (Japanese; Philip Gabriel; Vintage)

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (Norwegian; Anne Born; Harvill Secker)

Dai Sijie, Mr Muo's Travelling Couch (French; Ina Rilke; Chatto & Windus)

Magda Szabó, The Door (Hungarian; Len Rix; Harvill Secker)

Dubravka Ugresic, The Ministry of Pain (Croatian; Michael Henry Heim; Saqi)

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