2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist

Today (a day early) the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist was announced. I love this time of year! Below is the list, which includes the UK covers and blurbs from the UK publishers, this being a UK publication prize.

I’ve read three of the fifteen titles (thought two of the three were excellent) and, where applicable, have included links to my reviews.

The list:

A Man in Love CoverA Man in Love (published as My Struggle: Vol. 2 in the United States), by Karl Ove Knausgaard; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

This is a book about leaving your wife and everything you know.

It is about fresh starts, about love, about friendship. It is also about the earth-shattering experience of becoming a father, the mundane struggles of family life, ridiculously unsuccessful holidays, humiliating antenatal music classes, fights with quarrelsome neighbours, the emotional strains of childrens’ birthday parties and pushing a pram around Stockholm when all you really want to do is write.

This is a book about one man’s life but, somehow, about everyone else’s too.

A Man in Love, the second book of six in the My Struggle cycle, sees Knausgaard write of tempestuous relationships, the trials of parenthood and an urge to create great art. His singular insight and exhilarating honesty must be read to be believed.

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A Meal in Winter CoverA Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli; tr. from the French by Sam Taylor.

One morning, in the dead of winter, three German soldiers are dispatched into the frozen Polish countryside. They have been charged by their commanders to track down and bring back for execution ‘one of them’ – a Jew. Having flushed out the young man hiding in the woods, they decide to rest in an abandoned house before continuing their journey back to the camp. As they prepare food, they are joined by a passing Pole whose outspoken anti-Semitism adds tension to an already charged atmosphere. Before long, the group’s sympathies have splintered as they consider the moral implications of their murderous mission and confront their own consciences to ask themselves: should the Jew be offered food? And, having shared their meal, should he be taken back, or set free?

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Back to Back CoverBack to Back, by Julia Franck; tr. from the German by Anthea Bell.

Käthe is a Jewish sculptor living in East Berlin. A survivor of the Nazi era, she is a fervent socialist who has been using her political connections to secure more significant commissions. Devoted entirely to success, she is a cruel and abrasive mother to her children. Käthe barely acknowledges Ella’s vulnerable loneliness and Thomas’s quiet aspirations, and her hard-nosed brutality forces her children to build an imaginary world as a shelter from the coldness that surrounds them. But the siblings find themselves enclosed by the Berlin Wall, and unable to pursue their dreams.

Heartbreaking and shocking, Back to Back is a dark fairytale of East Germany – a moving personal story of love, betrayal and disillusionment within a single family that reflects the greater tragedy of the world around them.

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Brief Loves that Live Forever CoverBrief Loves that Live Forever, by Andreï Makine; tr. form the French by Geoffrey Strachan.

In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance.

Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him – a scorching day in a blossoming orchard with a woman who loves another; a furtive, desperate affair in a Black Sea resort; the bunch of snowdrops a crippled childhood friend gave him to give to his lover.

As the dreary Brezhnev era gives way to Perestroika and the fall of Communism, the orphan uncovers the truth behind the life of Dmitri Ress, whose tragic fate embodies the unbreakable bond between love and freedom.

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Butterflies in NovemberButterflies in November, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir; tr. from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon.

After a day of being dumped – twice – and accidentally killing a goose, the narrator begins to dream of tropical holidays far away from the chaos of her current life. Instead, she finds her plans wrecked by her best friend’s deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when a shared lottery ticket nets the two of them over 40 million kroner, she and the boy head off on a road trip across Iceland, taking in cucumber-farming hotels, dead sheep, and any number of her exes desperate for another chance.

Blackly comic and uniquely moving, Butterflies in November is an extraordinary, hilarious tale of motherhood, relationships and the legacy of life’s mistakes.

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The Corpse WasherThe Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon; tr. from the Arabic by the author.

Young Jawad, born to a traditional Shi’ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad, decides to abandon the family tradition, choosing instead to become a sculptor, to celebrate life rather than tend to death. He enters Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, in defiance of his father’s wishes and determined to forge his own path. But the circumstances of history dictate otherwise. Saddam Hussein’s bellicose dictatorship reaps war, economic disruption, occupation, and sectarian violence, one following another in dreadful succession. Corpses pile up, and Jawad returns to the inevitable washing and shrouding. Trained as an artist to shape materials to represent life aesthetically, he now must contemplate how death shapes daily life and the bodies of Baghdad’s inhabitants. Through the struggles of a single desperate family, Sinan Antoon’s novel shows us the heart of Iraq’s complex and violent recent history. Descending into the underworld where the borders between life and death are blurred and where there is no refuge from unending nightmares, Antoon limns a world of great sorrows, a world where the winds wail.

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The Dark RoadThe Dark Road, by Ma Jian; tr. from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

Meili, a young peasant woman born in the remote heart of China, is married to Kongzi, a village school teacher, and a distant descendant of Confucius. They have a daughter, but desperate for a son to carry on his illustrious family line, Kongzi gets Meili pregnant again without waiting for official permission. When family planning officers storm the village to arrest violators of the population control policy, mother, father and daughter escape to the Yangtze River and begin a fugitive life.

For years they drift south through the poisoned waterways and ruined landscapes of China, picking up work as they go along, scavenging for necessities and flying from police detection. As Meili’s body continues to be invaded by her husband and assaulted by the state, she fights to regain control of her fate and that of her unborn child.

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Exposure CoverExposure, by Sayed Kashua; tr. from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsberg.

In Jerusalem, two Arabs are on the hunt for the same identity. The first is a wealthy lawyer with a thriving practice, a large house, a Mercedes and a beautiful family. With a sophisticated image to uphold, he decides one evening to buy a second-hand Tolstoy novel recommended by his wife – but inside it he finds a love letter, in Arabic, undeniably in her handwriting. Consumed with jealous rage, the lawyer vows to take his revenge on the book’s previous owner.

Elsewhere in the city, a young social worker is struggling to make ends meet. In desperation he takes an unenviable job as the night-time carer of a comatose young Jew. Over the long, dark nights that follow, he pieces together the story of his enigmatic patient, and finds that the barriers that ought to separate their lives are more permeable than he could ever have imagined.

As they venture further into deception, dredging up secrets and ghosts both real and imagined, the lawyer and the carer uncover the dangerous complexities of identity – as their lies bring them ever closer together.

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The Infatuations CoverThe Infatuations, by Javier Marías; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

Every day, Maria Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft.

It is only later, when she comes across a newspaper photograph of the man, lying stabbed in the street, his shirt half off, that she discovers who the couple are. Some time afterwards, when the woman returns to the café with her children, who are then collected by a different man, and Maria approaches her to offer her condolences, an entanglement begins which sheds new light on this apparently random, pointless death.

With The Infatuations, Javier Marías brilliantly reimagines the murder novel as a metaphysical enquiry, addressing existential questions of life, death, love and morality.

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The Iraqi Christ CoverThe Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim; tr. from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.

From legends of the desert to horrors of the forest, Blasim’s stories blend the fantastic with the everyday, the surreal with the all-too-real. Taking his cues from Kafka, his prose shines a dazzling light into the dark absurdities of Iraq s recent past and the torments of its countless refugees. The subject of this, his second collection, is primarily trauma and the curious strategies human beings adopt to process it (including, of course, fiction). The result is a masterclass in metaphor a new kind of story-telling, forged in the crucible of war, and just as shocking.

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The Mussell FeastThe Mussell Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke; tr. from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

The German book that has shaped an entire generation.  A mother and her two teenage children sit at the dinner table. In the middle stands a large pot of cooked mussels. Why has the father not returned home? As the evening wears on, we glimpse the issues that are tearing this family apart. ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’ Birgit Vanderbeke  Why Peirene chose to publish this book: ‘I love this monologue. It’s the first Peirene book which made me laugh out loud with tears in my eyes. The author lays bare the contradictory logic of an inflexible mind. This is a poignant yet hilarious narrative with a brilliant ending.’ Meike Ziervogel.

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Revenge CoverRevenge, by Yoko Ogawa; tr. form the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart. The place is immaculate but there is no one serving so she waits. Another customer comes in. The woman tells the new arrival that she is buying her son a treat for his birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake; even though he died in an accident when he was six years old.

From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters. In the tradition of classical Japanese poetic collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.

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The Sorrow of Angels CoverThe Sorrow of Angels, by Jón Kalman Stefansson; tr. from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton.

It is three weeks since the boy came to town, carrying a book of poetry to return to the old sea captain – the poetry that did for his friend Bárður. Three weeks, but already Bárður’s ghost has faded. Snow falls so heavily that it binds heaven and earth together.

As the villagers gather in the inn to drink schnapps and coffee while the boy reads to them from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Jens the postman stumbles in half dead, having almost frozen to his horse. On his next journey to the wide open fjords he is accompanied by the boy, and both must risk their lives for each other, and for an unusual item of mail.

The Sorrow of Angels is a timeless literary masterpiece; in extraordinarily powerful language it brings the struggle between man and nature tangibly to life. It is the second novel in Stefánsson’s epic and elemental trilogy, though all can be read independently.

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Strange Weather in TokyoStrange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami; tr. form the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, and as the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love. Perfectly constructed, funny, and moving, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.

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Ten CoverTen, by Andrej Longo; tr. from the Italian by Howard Curtis.

The Mafia and the Ten Commandments meet in these interlinked short stories about the undebelly of Naples. Ten uncovers the raw heart of a city, telling the stories of ordinary people forced to make extraordinary compromises in a place permeated by crime.

We encounter a son who finds that he is capable of a terrible act when faced with his mother’s suffering ‘because someone had to do it’; a girl whose only outlet for the horrors of an adult’s abuse is to confide in a stuffed toy; an ancient nightclub singer whose ambition has led him to become a drug tester for a Mafia boss; and Ray-Ban who, during a night of mayhem with his friends, manages to steal the wrong car and pays dearly for it.

Each comes to life with painful precision in the hands of Andrej Longo – their fears, regrets, energy and grace. In direct and sometimes brutally raw prose, he conjures a searing new vision of Naples. With the lightest of brush strokes, Longo builds a vivid portrait of a city, its people, and their dreams of escape.

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Key dates:

  • March 8, there will be a panel discussion of the longlist at the Independent Bath Literary Festival from 2:45 – 3:45 pm in the Guildhall with Boyd Tonkin, Nadifa Mohamed, and Natalie Haynes.
  • April 8, 2014: The shortlist of six books will be announced at the London Book Fair, followed by a panel discussion with Boyd Tonkin, Shaun Whiteside, and Alev Adil from 3:30 – 4:15 pm in the Literary Translation Centre.
  • May 8, 2014: The winner will be announced at a ceremony in central London at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

15 thoughts on “2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist”

  1. Trevor says:

    Please let me know — here, there, anywhere — if you have a review you’d like me to link to. I’ll include it above.

  2. Here’s a link to my review of The Mussel Feast: http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/the-mussel-feast-by-birgit-vanderbeke/

    Alas, it is the only one that I have read.

  3. Man, you have a strong stomach. Some of the language in the blurbs – ow, ow. Has the blurb writer for The Infatuations not read a mystery written since, say 1920? “The German book that has shaped an entire generation.” I’m not cut out for this business.

    I look forward to your writing about these books, at least.

  4. Trevor says:

    I’ll plug your review in, Kevin — thanks!

    Tom, that made me laugh! To be honest, I couldn’t read most of these blurbs. I include them only for those interested who want something about the books. I’d much prefer to have my own thoughts (or those of someone else who knows and isn’t trying to sell), but I’m afraid this is what we have :-) .

  5. lizzysiddal says:

    I’ve read 3 and have 5 more in hand. I didn’t like Butterflies in November enough to review it but I did review Back to Back and Revenge. Links below.

    http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/back-to-back-julia-franck/

    http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/revenge-yoko-ogawa/

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    How interesting! I can’t find a single title to entice me on the Bailey list, but I want to read nearly all of these:)
    I have a review of Revenge, though I have to confess that reviewing short stories is definitely not my strong point. See http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/04/03/revenge-by-yoko-ogawa-translated-by-stephen-snyder/

  7. I’ve done one for Karl Ove today at messybooker.blogspot.com

  8. An excellent list and succinct summaries, I was surprised to see Sayed Kashua’s book with a different title, I guess I must have read a US edition.
    My reviews linked here of three titles I’ve reviewed:

    Exposure – read as Second Person Singular

    Revenge

    The Mussel Feast

  9. Trevor says:

    The main post has been updated to include many reviews (and I’ll try to keep on top of it and add links to other reviews I’m made aware of). I think it’s interesting that one that received a lot of newspaper attention is still the only one I don’t have a blog review to link to: Ma Jian’s The Dark Road.ma jian

  10. Bellezza says:

    I’m halfway through The Dark Road, and I should have a review up in a day or so. It is indeed dark.

    Thanks for putting up links to all the reviews from everyone. How interesting that some books have several, others have none.

  11. Tony says:

    Perhaps a sign of popularity (or good publicity…).

    I’ve just started ‘The Dark Road’, and it’s certainly harrowing so far – risky to make judgements after such a short time, but I think this one has a good chance of going all the way…

    …I reserve the right to change that opinion though ;)

  12. Messy Tony says:

    And another review this time “A Meal In Winter” (short book, quick turn around on that one). http://messybooker.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/independent-foreign-fiction-prize-long_16.html

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