Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015: It’s a global book prize, not just European

Whichever continent may triumph on 27 May, I warmly recommend them all

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 09 April 2015 00:16 BST
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


As a judge for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I sometimes meet people who compliment the contest as an essential showcase in insular Britain for “European” literature. It can feel churlish to correct them. But this is and always has been a proudly global award.

It embraces the living authors of every continent and rewards the best of them – along with their translators, who take 50 per cent of the £10,000 prize.

Last year, for example, exiled Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim and his translator Jonathan Wright won the prize. And this year’s wide-ranging and mind-expanding shortlist proves the international point.

It features two exciting Spanish-language writers, neither of Spanish origin. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel hails from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation; Tomás González is from Colombia. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami scarcely needs introducing.

As for the European half of the draw, the novels by Daniel Kehlmann and Jenny Erpenbeck bear witness to the current strength and scope of German-language fiction, while Erwin Mortier flies the Belgian – or, more precisely – the Flemish flag.

The books vary as much as their authors. González delivers a pin-sharp parable of the rural “good life” gone wrong. Ávila Laurel opens up the magical world of his home island, as tradition collides with history.

Murakami sends a wistful loner back into the mysteries of his haunted – and haunting – youth. Kehlmann wittily transforms the fate of three brothers into a farce-of-ideas that’s also a quest for reality in an age of fakes. Erpenbeck distils the turning-points of a woman’s life into a beautifully succinct journey through Europe’s 20th-century tragedies. Mortier re-makes the First World War novel into a heartfelt and lyrical voyage through time and memory.

Whichever continent may triumph on 27 May, I warmly recommend them all.

Boyd Tonkin has been a member of the judging panel for the prize since 2000

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