Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: celebrating a border-crossing age

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 29 February 2008 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Early in Pawel Huelle's delicious novel Castorp, its well-meaning but priggish hero runs across a nasty little outbreak of ethnic bigotry on the boat from Hamburg to Danzig, 100 years ago. Young Hans (an earlier incarnation of Thomas Mann's ailing hero in The Magic Mountain) protests against his fellow-passengers' agreement that, whatever their disputes, one thing unites them. Everybody hates the vile English. Hans is shocked. Piping up in public for the first time since he won "top marks" for a speech at school, he insists that "modern man, with all the benefits of progress and erudition at his disposal, should be free of prejudices". Achievements not origins matter in "human thought and technological inventions", not to mention in "immortal works of art".

The reader, but not Hans, knows that our high-minded German student is enjoying a first great wave of globalisation, which broke against the guns of August 1914. Riding the crest of its successor, with lethal antipathies still lurking in the waters, we have another chance to profit from the "progress and erudition" that delivers the art of the planet to our doorstep every year. Maybe it's time to count our cosmopolitan cultural blessings.

Pawel Huelle's novel from Poland joins five equally compelling works on the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Lars Saabye Christensen from Norway, Daniel Kehlmann from Austria (and now Germany), Marlene van Niekerk from South Africa, Bengt Ohlsson from Sweden and Paul Verhaeghen from Belgium (and now the US) also fought their way through a formidable long-list of 17 titles, abetted by the art of their translator. In Verhaeghen's case, and for the first time in the final stages of this prize, that is himself.

Two titles from the long-list came close enough to a shortlist place for the judges to decide that they deserve a special mention: Let It Be Morning by Sayed Kashua (translated by Miriam Shlesinger; Atlantic) and Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pist'anek (translated by Peter Petro; Garnett Press). We warmly recommend them both.

The total field of submissions considered by the judges – Kate Griffin, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Florence Noiville and myself – amounted to almost 100 novels and short-story collections published during 2007, up 10 per cent on last year's count. So here is the cream of a bumper crop. The prize of £10,000 – divided between author and translator – will be given in early May. Once again, we salute the far-sighted support from Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger that makes this unique prize possible.

Yes, the British book trade should translate more; yes, translators deserve a better deal; and yes, fiction from outside the Anglosphere can meet too much of the sort of prejudice that would outrage young Castorp. Still, a little celebration might be in order too. The dedicated translators and publishers (often from independent firms) who bring the best of the world's fiction to these shores have helped contribute to another golden age of cross-cultural interchange.

From their balance sheets and bank statements, it might not look that way. But no evidence supports the pessimist's idea that British readers had access to a broader range of high-quality literature in translation a generation ago than they do now. If anything, the opposite is true, both for the new fiction this award promotes and for classic works. Readers, in ever-greater numbers, should enjoy it while they can. The good ship globalisation hit the rocks before. It could do so again.

The Model, By Lars Saabye Christensen, trans Don Bartlett (Norwegian), Arcadia £11.99

On the eve of a crucial new show, the stalled mid-career artist Peter Wihl discovers that he will soon lose his sight. Cue the painter's shocking quest to escape this looming hell, with a drastic reappraisal of his youth, and his family life, that shines light into dark corners. Pacey, sinister and far removed from all romantic clichés of the artist's life, Christensen's novel combines suspense and reflection as tension mounts, secrets unfold and a shattering climax ensues.

Castorp, By Pawel Huelle, trans Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Polish), Serpent's Tail £8.99

In pre-First World War Danzig, the student Hans Castorp finds his German rationality upended by the passions and puzzles of the "Slavic" east. Although he offers a "prequel" to Mann's The Magic Mountain, Huelle marshalls irony, fantasy and intellectual debate into a self-standing picture of a place and an age. And he fashions a slyly comic but endearing portrait of an idealistic youth blundering, with the best of intentions, into the dangerous 20th century.

Measuring the World, By Daniel Kehlmann, trans Carol Brown Janeway (German), Quercus £7.99

Like a Viennese Tom Stoppard, Kehlmann pursues the parallel careers of two intellectual giants with sparkling wit and mischief. Of his two titans of the Enlightenment, the naive Humboldt travels the world, from South America to Russia, to name its places and species. The worldly Gauss stays at home in muddy Germany to revolutionise maths and physics. As he blends these twin streams of thought, Kehlmann dances on a tightrope between tribute and travesty.

The Way of the Women, By Marlene van Niekerk, trans Michiel Heyns (Afrikaans), Little, Brown £14.99

In a South Africa emerging from its age of injustice, the infirm farmer Milla and her "Coloured" servant, now carer, Agaat share a history of conflict and intimacy. In a polyphonic novel that sows many voices into its fertile soil, the women's world becomes a microcosm of a nation's trek out of the past. Dairy entries, folklore, songs and stories ring the changes on a narrative that focuses a wide sweep of events and emotions into the bond of mistress and maid.

Gregorius, By Bengt Ohlsson, trans Silvester Mazzarella (Swedish), Portobello £9.99

An archetypal villain of Swedish literature, Rev Gregorius is the pompous, unsavoury pastor spurned by his wife in Soderberg's landmark novel of 1905, Doctor Glas. In Ohlsson's hands, he becomes a victim, even a hero. The first-person narrative presents a lonely and sensitive man trapped by his past and his role. Deftly plotted, movingly observed, this fictional act of redemption turns the tables on a classic, as the scapegoat buttonholes us in a seducer's voice.

Omega Minor, By Paul Verhaeghen, trans by the author (Dutch), Dalkey Archive £9.99

Moving between the 1930s and 1990s, spanning Nazi-era Berlin, modern Germany and the nuclear-research site at Los Alamos, Verhaeghen creates an epic, and a tragedy, of 20th-century history. Einstein's lost theorem, the legacy of Auschwitz and the bitter rivalries of science fuse into a mind-stretching and heart-tugging whole. Farce, mystery and sheer stylistic brio enrich a dazzling exploration of the ideas and experiences at the roots of modern life.

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