Boyd Tonkin: The Independent prize tunes in to a planet of stories

The week in books

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 03 October 2013 22:45
Dazzlingly wide spectrum: Nadifa Mohamed
Dazzlingly wide spectrum: Nadifa Mohamed

For the record, I – unlike all of Britain's corporate bookies – haven't the foggiest idea who might win the Nobel Prize in Literature next Thursday. In fact, thanks to the rigmarole that prevents the Swedish Academy in Stockholm from even fixing the date much in advance, we don't even know for sure that 10 October will mark the life-changing red-letter day for… Joyce Carol Oates? Ngugi wa Thiong'o? Haruki Murakami? Peter Nadas? Jon Fosse (Norwegian playwright-novelist, and a fresh hot tip right now)?

At this time of year, the gambling giants bombard the media with wackily assured predictions about the chances of global authors. The bookies have obviously barely heard of many of these candidates, and often can't even spell their names. Somehow I imagine whey-faced Dickensian youths wrenched from the races at Newmarket – or the prospects of X-Factor finalists – when they draw the shortest, literary straw. "Strike a light, would you Adam-and-Eve it? I've only got to set the odds for the Nobel Prize in bleedin' Litch-era-chewer."

Yet I'm rather grateful to the betting houses for their scattergun attention to the Nobel. At least they try to manufacture a suspenseful event from an utterly opaque procedure that makes the Vatican's conclave of cardinals look like the viewers' votes on Strictly. Unlike the cardinals, however, some Academicians do apparently slip out to place an inside wager on emerging favourites. Odds on last year's Laureate, Mo Yan from China, shortened drastically in the final 48 hours. Those naughty, naughty Swedes.

Thankfully, I can bring you definite news of a far more transparent, and almost comparably broad, award. Last month, I had to suppress a smirk when the Man Booker crew claimed that opening up their prize to Americans - and other non-Commonwealth writers in English – would render it truly "international". Piffle, in any language.

Britain does, however, boast one long-standing literary contest that embraces fiction from all over the globe. That is our own Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, supported with stalwart conviction by Arts Council England, and with its £10,000 reward split equally between the original author and his or her translator. We now have a varied and gifted team of judges in post for the next award, due in May 2014. Once again, we will consider translated works by living authors first published in the UK during the preceding year.

I will be joined on the panel by prolific and prize-winning translator Shaun Whiteside, whose 50 translations range from Freud and Nietzsche to Amélie Nothomb and Bernhard Schlink; by novelist Nadifa Mohamed, one of this year's "Best of Young British" Granta list and author of the just-published The Orchard of Lost Souls; by Natalie Haynes, Independent columnist, broadcaster and classicist, whose own first novel appears in 2014; and by Alev Adil, writer, artist and teacher, now artist in residence and head of the creative writing MA at the University of Greenwich.

Together they will focus a dazzlingly wide spectrum of creative, critical and – not least – linguistic expertise on our task. In addition to the resolute backing of Arts Council England, this award also owes a heavy debt of gratitude to the staff of Booktrust, who manage its administration with such flair.

This May, the Independent prize went to Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker, and his terrific translator David Colmer, for The Detour: his uncanny and mesmeric novel of a woman who goes AWOL from her own life in the wilds of rural Wales. Next time, I can't promise any of the high jinks and low intrigue that often attend the Nobel. I do know beyond all doubt that the long-list, the shortlist and of course the winner will take you on an exhilarating global gallop in the company of some of the finest writers at work in the world today. On that you may, confidently, bet.

The sense of a new beginning: Duffy returns

Fans of sleazy, witty London noir, rejoice. Next spring, Orion will reissue the four 1980s novels by Dan Kavanagh that feature his swinging, sardonic investigator, Duffy. From Duffy in 1980 to Going to the Dogs in 1987, the ever-elusive Kavanagh nailed the seedy underside of the decade in gloriously disreputable style. Little has been heard of him since. Orion confirms that Mr Kavanagh remains "unreachable for comment". And so, presumably, does his alleged associate, a certain Mr Julian Barnes.

Bridget, Renée – and Aleksandar

Can the hype kill the book? In most cases, yes; with Bridget Jones, probably not. Already inescapable across the media, the third outing for Helen Fielding's heroine doesn't even go on sale until next week. So I will allow myself a Bridget anecdote. Long ago, I attended Picador's launch for The Question of Bruno by the Bosnian-born, Chicago-based hotshot Aleksandar Hemon.

Neither I nor any other supposedly canny sleuth there much noticed the polite work-experience lady diligently wielding the canapés. Yes, that – as we found out later – was Renée Zellweger, going deep undercover for three weeks in the Picador press office as preparation for her role as Bridget in the film. Since then, I have always associated Ms Jones (and Ms Fielding) with the great Balkan storyteller. Will they ever share a festival platform? The droll Hemon would be up for it, I'm sure.

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