Independent Foreign Fiction Prize: Latin America is back with a boom

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 11 March 2011 01:00 GMT

During our hard-fought but well-mannered judging sessions for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, we spend too much time inspecting individual trees ever to spot the shape of the emerging wood. So I left the meeting at which we hammered out the long-list for this year's £10,000 prize happy merely that the judges – Harriett Gilbert, MJ Hyland, Catriona Kelly, Neel Mukherjee and myself – had picked 15 titles that between them represent the best, and broadest, sample of new fiction in translation that one could could hope to set before a British readership.

As indeed they do. It was only later that I spotted one big story behind the selection. Whatever comes to pass in the final stages of this prize, our sifting from the whole field of translated fiction by living writers published in the UK during 2010 does ratify one global trend. The Latin Americans have roared back. A new generation of novelists – the grandchildren, if you like, of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and the patriarchs of the 1960s "boom" – is restoring the continent to its vanguard role in international fiction. Four of our 15 titles come from Latin American Spanish. But these books don't belong to any school or conform to any type.

From Colombia, Juan Gabriel Vásquez recruits the ghost of Jopeph Conrad into a sly and gripping counter-narrative of revolution and conspiracy (The Secret History of Costaguana). From Venezuela, Alberto Berrera Tysza distils an eerie fable of identity from a hypochondriac's psycho-drama and a looming family crisis (The Sickness). From Peru, Santiago Roncagliolo revisits the trauma of recent history in a sophisticated, page-turning political thriller (Red April). And from Argentina, Marcelo Figueras tells – with insight and inwardness – the story of another grisly era through the wide eyes of a child (Kamchatka).

Which other tales does this long-list tell? That younger German writers can often negotiate the grandest themes with a light and delicate touch – the mysteries of physics, in Juli Zeh's smart and funny intrigue Dark Matter; the fate of personality in a hi-tech, social-networked age, in Daniel Kehlmann's ingenious, comic nest of stories, Fame; or the tragic weight of the 20th-century past as focused on the single family house evoked via the burning lyricism of Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation. From the same history-mangled terrain of Middle Europe, uproarious dark comedy drives Jachym Topol's novel of Czech lads dragged up in an emblematic orphanage after the Soviet invasion of 1968 (Gargling with Tar), and Michal Witkowski's one-off camp extravaganza about Poland's lost gay paradise of the Iron Curtian years (Lovetown).

It ought to make the news, as well, that a couple of the ranking superstars of global fiction have once more aimed high and hit home with epic novels that magisterially conjoin private life and public destiny, in Turkey – Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence – and in Israel: David Grossman's To the End of the Land. Scandinavian fiction still scales the heights, whether in the exquisite family micro-drama of son and mother in Norway's Per Petterson (I Curse the River of Time); or, from Sweden, Per Wästberg's sweeping saga of ideas and identities in shipboard ferment with Captain Cook (The Journey of Anders Sparrman).

Meanwhile, some of the stories that linger longest will dodge every trend-spotting niche and generalising dictum. They include the lapidary sadness of a lonely French mother at the end of her tether in Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea; and the hyper-modern disorientation of Japanese youngsters in Shuichi Yoshida's satirical "whydunnit?" thriller, Villain. All in all, this long-list will – I'm delighted to report – stretch any overarching theory about the condition of world fiction to breaking-point and far beyond. Yet it does embody one certainty: our absolute dependence, as English-language readers, on the fine and subtle art of the most gifted translators. As in previous years, several of the most brilliant at work today are featured here.

Our shortlist of six will be announced at the London Book Fair on 11 April. I can't quite yet discern the path that will lead us through this lush and lavish growth to that slender copse. That's our challenge. In the meantime, enjoy an enriching wander through this forest of fiction. Warm thanks again to Arts Council England, for its unwavering commitment to this unique and precious award; and to Booktrust, which administers it – and can see the wood for the trees.

A wide world of fiction: the long-list

Jenny Erpenbeck Visitation (translated by Susan Bernofsky, from the German); Portobello

Marcelo Figueras Kamchatka (Frank Wynne; Spanish); Atlantic

David Grossman To the End of the Land (Jessica Cohen; Hebrew); Jonathan Cape

Daniel Kehlmann Fame (Carol Brown Janeway; German); Quercus

Véronique Olmi Beside the Sea (Adriana Hunter; French); Peirene Press

Orhan Pamuk The Museum of Innocence (Maureen Freely; Turkish); Faber & Faber

Per Petterson I Curse the River of Time (Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson; Norwegian); Harvill Secker

Santiago Roncagliolo Red April (Edith Grossman; Spanish); Atlantic

Jachym Topol Gargling with Tar (David Short; Czech); Portobello

Alberto Berrera Tyszka The Sickness (Margaret Jull Costa; Spanish); MacLehose Press

Juan Gabriel Vásquez The Secret History of Costaguana (Anne McLean; Spanish); Bloomsbury

Per Wästberg The Journey of Anders Sparrman (Tom Geddes; Swedish); Granta

Michal Witkowski Lovetown (W Martin; Polish); Portobello

Shuichi Yoshida Villain (Philip Gabriel; Japanese); Harvill Secker

Juli Zeh Dark Matter (Christine Lo; German); Harvill Secker

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