'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist: A whole world in their words


Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 12 April 2012 15:39

It called for soul-searching and sacrifice but, after much impassioned debate, the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize took the shape that you see here. If anything, the panel of judges – Xiaolu Guo, Jon Cook, Nick Barley, Hephzibah Anderson and myself – had to contend with an embarrassment of riches. Whatever our perennial regrets about the limited quantity of fiction brought into English from other languages, the quality of translations felt as bold and bright as ever. In Britain, we owe so much of our view of global fiction to independent publishers of various shapes and sizes. Responsible for around two-thirds of all submissions for the Independent prize, they contribute five out of the six titles on this list – although I ought to stress that neither commercial nor geographical provenance ever sways the decision.

That said, this selection loops in a vast arc from the wind-blown cliffs of 17th-century Iceland (Sjón) to the cafés of fin-de-siècle Paris (Umberto Eco) and the dusty villages of Henan (Yan Lianke). The books embrace as wide a span of forms as of locations – from the enlaced story-cycle of Judith Hermann's bohemian Berlin to the eerie, enigmatic fable Diego Marani spins in wartime Trieste and the starkly realistic yet fairy-tale landscape where Aharon Appelfeld's young hero survives. It was a privilege to read, and to discuss, all these books.

On 14 May, our twin winners – the author and the translator, who share the £10,000 award equally – will be announced. We have, as ever, Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger to thank for the vital support that allows us to build this extraordinary annual bridge between the world's writers and British readers. I hope that you'll again be tempted to cross it with us.

All books are available with a discount from the Independent bookshop: 08430 600 030

Six of the best: the judges' verdicts

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

Hephzibah Anderson: Aharon Appelfeld's 'Blooms of Darkness' tells the story of Hugo, an 11-year-old Jewish boy whose mother spirits him from a ghetto in Ukraine as the Nazis arrive to liquidate it. She leaves him with a prostitute named Mariana who hides him in her cupboard, and over the next 18 months, this becomes his world. Jeffrey M Green's incantatory translation from the Hebrew does ample justice to a novel that meditates on the imagination, memory and language itself. As the relationship between Hugo and Mariana evolves, this deceptively simple narrative does something extraordinary, carrying the reader to a liminal territory in which deep sensuality exists alongside unfathomable brutality. Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books)

Alice by Judith Hermann

Boyd Tonkin: These five linked stories all unfold in the shadow of death. Yet, with their pin-sharp precision and lyrical tenderness, they make the reader feel thrillingly alive. In Germany, Alice awaits the passing of a former partner and forms a fragile bond with his current wife. On holiday in the Italian lakes, surrounded by sensual delight, she finds that mortal shocks intrude. Back in Berlin, a meeting with her gay uncle's lover leads to a buried story of forbidden grief. Exquisitely written, gracefully translated,Judith Hermann's everyday elegies might have proved depressing in clumsier hands. They are just the opposite. All the more precious for their transience, these fragments of love and memory brim with the small joys of life. Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo (The Clerkenwell Press)

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón

Nick Barley: This memorable, magical book tells the story of an Icelandic sage banished to exile on Gullbjörn's Island in 1635. Caught in the grip of superstition, Iceland's establishment has decided that the self-taught healer, Jonas the Learned, is a practitioner of the black arts and sent him away to a "bird-fouled rock". Sitting there with nothing more than a sandpiper for company, Jonas is then drawn into an epic adventure, by turns surprising and surreal. Sjón's remarkable tale imagines a delirious 17th-century Iceland swithering between mysticism and a new scientific rationalism, and it is rendered brilliantly into English in Victoria Cribb's exuberant translation. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Telegram Books)

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Jon Cook: This is a great mystery novel about paranoia, prejudice and forgery. Set mainly in late 19th-century Paris, its central figure and its only entirely fictional creation is Simone Simonini. His diary entries form the narrative spine. We gain access to a world of city streets, strange anecdotes, gourmet menus, and conspiratorial minds. What emerges out of the novel's richly informed historical imagination is a salutary insight: anti-Semitism was part of the common currency of 19th-century culture. Out of it came one of the most sinister and influential modern fictions, the 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. With terse wit and engaging erudition, Eco's best novel since 'The Name of the Rose' shows that the Holocaust was a catastrophe a long time in the making. Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon (Harvill Secker)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Jon Cook: 'New Finnish Grammar' takes the form of a sequence of journal entries, with occasional interruptions from an editor. The journal is written by a Finnish sailor, Sampo Karjalainen. The editorial comments come from a doctor, Petri Friari, who treated Sampo after his beaten body was found on the streets of Trieste. Sampo can remember nothing and has lost the powers of speech. Friari brings him back to life and to the Finnish language he believes Sampo has lost. This is the start of a journey back to what he believes to be his home, war-torn Helsinki. This subtle and moving novel shows how much of what we take to be ourselves depends upon the language we speak and the identity it gives us - and how suddenly that self can be taken away. Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Xiaolu Guo: This is a brave, dark and poetic account of modern Chinese malaise. Through his description of the many lives touched by an Aids epidemic sweeping a village, Yan Lianke proves himself not only as a writer of political vision, but also one with a unique narrative voice. His tale is told from the point of view of a dead child. Through the child, we witnesses the deaths of HIV-infected villagers, as well as the actions the villagers take to easy the pain of the dying and bring hope to those who remain alive. Yan Lianke's prose, based on a true story, combines an oral storytelling tradition with daring experiment - something rare in contemporary Chinese literature. I urge anyone interested in modern China to read this book. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter (Corsair)

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