Elias Rukla, the heroically grumpy teacher at the centre of Dag Solstad's novel Shyness and Dignity, broods about the lack of curiosity shown by his Oslo staffroom colleagues. They may moan endlessly about money but, otherwise, the bigger issues leave them cold and "they did not seem to be interested in carrying on a conversation any more". Sometimes, the UK fiction scene feels much the same: with its hype-happy publishers, fame-hungry writers, gossip-crazy media, discount-driven retailers and, at the end of the chain, passive readers expected to stump up and shut up in the face of the latest sensation. There are all sorts of reasons to relish the shortlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction prize. Not least among them is the way each of these remarkable novels in translation invites us to have a many-sided conversation - with ourselves, with other readers, with the authors and (in some cases) history itself. Each, in its special way, is proof that formula-free storytelling thrives in many lands, outside the fiction factories.
Our shortlist embraces six original languages: Portuguese (José Eduardo Agualusa), Swedish (Per Olov Enquist), Greek (Vangelis Hatziyannidis), Spanish (Javier Marías), German (Eva Menasse) and Norwegian (Dag Solstad). The novels unfold across a world of plot and passion, from Agualusa's post-colonial Angola to Enquist's fin-de-siècle Paris. These books are talking to, and arguing with, their varied genres, from the fable-cum-mystery of Hatziyannidis to the family saga of Menasse. In English, each also bears witness to the creative dialogue that outstanding translators have undertaken with the original texts.
Inevitably, the judges (David Constantine, Jennie Erdal, Kate Griffin, Ali Smith and Boyd Tonkin) had to engage in a humdinger of a conversation to reach this shortlist at all. That took a strenuous debate at Arts Council England - again, along with Champagne Taittinger, source of the invaluable support that allows this award to carry on talking about the planet's fiction. Two other books came so close to places on the list that the judges wish to give them a warm, public endorsement: Seeing by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker), and Grace by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara Haveland (Picador). And, as we noted when the long-list was announced, the judging process this year stood in the shadow of Irène Némirovsky's rediscovered masterwork Suite Française (in Sandra Smith's translation): ineligible for this award, but still a touchstone of value and artistry for the entire panel.
The winner of the prize - which awards £5,000 to the author, and £5,000 to the translator - will be revealed on 1 May. Between now and then, we hope that this list will set tongues wagging and fingers tapping for a legion of curious readers. This conversation has only just begun.
The Book of Chameleons, by José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. Daniel Hahn (ARCADIA £11.99)
In Angola, an observant gecko watches as the albino Felix Ventura supplies new biographies to his guilty or vulnerable clients. We (and the gecko) hear their stories as the spy, the photographer or the minister try to re-fashion troubled lives amid the turmoil of post-colonial Africa. Humorous and quizzical, with a light touch on weighty themes, the narrative darts about with lizard-like colour and velocity.
The Story of Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist, trans. Tiina Nunnally (HARVILL SECKER £16.99)
In late 19th-century Paris, the disturbed teenager Blanche Wittman becomes the star patient of Dr Charcot as he shows off his new theories of hysteria. Released from hospital, Enquist's Blanche joins a second scientific revolution as she sacrifices health (and limbs) to help Marie Curie in her research into radioactivity. In this jigsaw-like novel, made up of glowing fragments of history and drama, scandal and prejudice engulf Curie as the pioneer turns pariah.
Four Walls, by Vangelis Hatziyannidis, trans. Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife (MARION BOYARS £7.99)
On a remote Greek island, solitary Rodakis takes in a fugitive woman and her daughter, and sets out to revive his father's honey-producing business. A sense of menace dogs his every step, and mystery surrounds everything from the identity of the guests to the prized Rodakis recipe. Soon he finds himself imprisoned in a sinister monastery, and long-buried secrets come to light in an eerie landscape which feels as if Ballard, or even Kafka, had taken a turn in the Aegean.
Your Face Tomorrow, 2: Dance and Dream, by Javier Marías trans. Margaret Jull Costa (CHATTO & WINDUS £17.99)
It stands alone as a self-sufficient work, but this novel is also the mid-point of a trilogy. In a brilliantly drawn London, Deza works for an obscure espionage outfit, a watcher unsure of his mission and his unfathomable boss. In the sinuous, gorgeous prose of a true virtuoso of European fiction, scenes of offbeat comedy gives way to memories of horror, and incidents from the Spanish Civil War summon up all the unquiet dead.
Vienna, by Eva Menasse, trans. Anthea Bell (WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £12.99)
From the cafés and workshops of 1930s Vienna to the pubs and football clubs of modern London (and even Luton), this family chronicle traces the accidents and adventures of a part-Jewish clan. They mostly survive - but sometimes don't - on the ragged fringes of great events. Over the generations, a dynasty of crooks, chancers and charmers come to cherishable life. This is a novel swathed in wit and warmth, but aware of the lies, evasions and cruelties that those old-world qualities can hide.
Shyness and Dignity, by Dag Solstad, trans. Sverre Lyngstad (HARVILL SECKER £12.99)
Driven to breaking-point by his pop-mad pupils' indifference to Ibsen and learning, teacher Rukla storms out of his Oslo school in a career-wrecking tantrum. Over one traumatic morning, he recalls his duty-bound life as an altruistic pillar of society. Meanwhile, his gifted friend Johan has forsaken Marx for the market to become a PR guru in New York. Rukla's private crisis captures in vivid, existential miniature the stalling of social-democratic Scandinavia.
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