Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: Jenny Erpenbeck wins with 'work of genius'

Erpenbeck is the first living German novelist to receive the accolade

Nick Clark
Thursday 28 May 2015 11:34 BST

Jenny Erpenbeck, described as one of the “most exciting authors alive”, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in its 25th year. She is the first living German novelist to receive the accolade.

Erpenbeck and her translator, Susan Bernofsky, were presented with the award for The End of Days at a ceremony. The pair will split the £10,000 prize money.

One judge described the novel – the story of the 20th century traced through the different possible lives of one woman – as a “work of genius”. It beat works by acclaimed authors including Haruki Murakami, Erwin Mortier and Daniel Kehlmann.

Antonia Byatt, on the judging panel, said The End of Days was “a truly remarkable novel”. She hailed the “invigorating structure and varied prose style; sometimes crisp, in other parts more allusive and sinuous”.

The Independent’s Boyd Tonkin, who also judged the award, said it was a novel to “enjoy, to cherish and to revisit many times”.

The book follows the different paths – as dictated by chance, fate and history – of a woman from a small Galician town at the turn of the century, through pre-war Vienna and Stalin’s Moscow to present-day Berlin. The ideas for the novel emerged following the death of Erpenbeck’s mother, and the author borrowed details from her grandmother’s life for her heroine’s journey.

Erpenbeck, who was born in East Germany and is an opera director as well as a writer, was previously short-listed for the prize in 2011 for Visitation. She had also been long-listed for The Book of Words a decade earlier.

Author and reviewer Michael Faber has previously described Erpenbeck as “one of the finest, most exciting authors alive”. The End of Days, which is a bestseller in Europe, has already won the German literary award the Hans Fallada Prize.

The winning novel was chosen from 111 titles written in 28 different languages. The judges also gave a special mention to In the Beginning Was the Sea, the debut novel by Colombian writer Tomas Gonzalez, translated by Frank Wynne. It was published in 1983 by the owner of the Bogota nightclub where the author worked as a barman and not published in English for over three decades.

Erpenbeck, 48, is the only living German author to win the prize. While Gert Hofmann won for The Film Explainer in 1995, and seven years later W G Sebald won for Austerlitz, both were awarded it posthumously.

Ms Bernofsky, who directs the literary translation programme in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, discovered the German author’s work when she picked up The Old Child, her debut, on a translators’ study tour around Germany. “Jenny’s lyrical style bears uncanny similarities to the way I myself write in English, and translating her prose always feels like a homecoming,” she said.

The End of Days is the pair’s fourth book together “and I consider it her strongest to date”, Ms Bernofsky said.

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