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)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'