Reading all over the world: The long-list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize spans the globe

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 12 March 2010 01:00

The numbers fell; but not the scope or the quality. A preference for safe bets and low horizons in recession-era publishing did serve to thin the field of translated fiction published in the UK during 2009. Entries for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shrank by more than a quarter. That only means, take note, that the total of titles considered by the judges (Tibor Fischer, Kate Griffin, Daniel Hahn, Kirsty Lang and myself) merely returned to its level a few years ago.

And, as a properly global shop-window for the range and depth of fiction in translation available in Britain, the long-list of 15 books that we have selected strikes this judge - at least - as a mixture as robust, alluring and diverse as ever. From Berlin (Julia Franck) and Calcutta (Sankar) to Buenos Aires (Claudia Piñeiro) and Baghdad (Hassan Blasim), and from a Russian historical mystery (Boris Akunin) and a Congolese low-life comedy (Alain Mabanckou) to a French wartime blockbuster (Jonathan Littell) and an Italian trio of coming-of-age novellas (Pietro Grossi), our choice accesses all areas of world fiction in form as well as theme and place.

It contains international literary stars as well as dynamic newcomers, with a third of the books translated from non-European languages. For the first time, three Arabic-language authors (Bahaa Taher from Egypt, Hassan Blasim from Iraq and Elias Khoury from Lebanon) feature on the list, as well as Syrian-born Rafik Schami, who writes in German.

His translator, the recently OBEd Anthea Bell, pops up again with her version of Julia Franck; the other double nominee is Humphrey Davies, with two Arabic titles to his credit. As for the imprints that host this banquet of overseas treats, that nine books out of a 15-strong gathering should come from independent houses (from middleweight Atlantic to tiny Comma Press) tells a story in itself about where to find vision and audacity in UK publishing today.

Once again, the prize owes a huge debt to the support of Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger. The judges will meet again in mid-April to scrap over the cull that will have to shrink this formidable field into a shortlist of six. I warmly recommend all the books on a list that offers something for everyone and something from (just about) everywhere. It will surprise, delight and sometimes even shock.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list

Boris Akunin The Coronation (translated by Andrew Bromfield from the Russian) Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Ketil Bjørnstad To Music (Deborah Dawkin & Erik Skuggevik; Norwegian) Maia Press

Hassan Blasim The Madman of Freedom Square (Jonathan Wright; Arabic) Comma Press

Philippe Claudel Brodeck's Report (John Cullen; French) MacLehose Press

Julia Franck The Blind Side of the Heart (Anthea Bell; German) Harvill Secker

Pietro Grossi Fists (Howard Curtis; Italian) Pushkin Press

Elias Khoury Yalo (Humphrey Davies; Arabic) MacLehose Press

Jonathan Littell The Kindly Ones (Charlotte Mandell; French) Chatto & Windus

Alain Mabanckou Broken Glass (Helen Stevenson; French) Serpent's Tail

Javier Marías Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (Margaret Jull Costa; Spanish) Chatto & Windus

Yoko Ogawa The Housekeeper and the Professor (Stephen Snyder; Japanese) Harvill Secker

Claudia Piñeiro Thursday Night Widows (Miranda France; Spanish) Bitter Lemon Press

Sankar Chowringhee (Arunava Sinha; Bengali) Atlantic

Rafik Schami The Dark Side of Love (Anthea Bell; German) Arabia Books

Bahaa Taher Sunset Oasis (Humphrey Davies; Arabic) Sceptre

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